The Snowden affair has revealed even more about Europe than about the United States.
Certainly, the facts of NSA spying are significant. But many people suspected that something of the sort was going on. The refusal of France, Italy and Portugal to allow the private aircraft of the President of Bolivia to cross their airspace on the mere suspicion that Edward Snowden might be aboard is rather more astonishing.
Together, these revelations confirm the completion of the transformation of the “Western democracies” into something else, an entity that as yet has no recognized name.
The outrage against the Bolivian President confirmed that this trans-Atlantic entity has absolutely no respect for international law, even though its leaders will make use of it when it suits them. But respect it, allow it to impede their actions in any way? Certainly not.
And this disrespect for the law is linked to a more basic institutional change: the destruction of effective democracy at the national level. This has been done by the power of money in the United States, where candidates are comparable to race horses owned by billionaires. In Europe, it has been done by the European Union, whose bureaucracy has gradually taken over the critical economic functions of independent states, leaving national governments to concoct huge controversies around private matters, such as marriage, while public policy is dictated from the EU Commission in Brussels.
But behind that Commission, and behind the US electoral game, lies the identical anonymous power that dictates its desires to this trans-Atlantic entity: financial capital.
This power is scheduled to be formally extended in the near future by the establishment of a free trade zone between the European Union and the United States. This development is the culmination of the so-called “European construction” that over several decades has transferred powers of sovereign European states to the EU, which in turn will transfer its power to trans-Atlantic institutions, all under the decisive control of “the Markets” – euphemism for financial capital.
The citizenry is informed of the latest stage of this ongoing de-democratization process only when it is well under way. The result is an ever-wider gap between “the political class”, which includes both politicians and the mass media, on one hand, and the general population on the other. The principal remaining task of the political class is to entertain the general population with the illusion that they are still living in a democracy, and that the officials they elect are acting in their interests.
When something like the grotesque incident of the Bolivian presidential plane occurs to expose the servility of the country’s officials, the mainstream media can be counted on to spin it out of sight. French television largely ignored the event – a negligence made easier by the latest Egyptian upheaval. One big international story per day is all the media consider suitable for a public whose basic news diet is centered on weather, sports and sex crimes.
To measure the surrender of French independence in recent decades, one can recall that in the 1970s, the government of center right President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing readily granted asylum to Black Panthers fleeing the United States. Today, the minister of the interior in a supposedly “center left” government rules out granting asylum to any citizen of the United States, on grounds that the U.S. is a “friend”, a “democracy” with an independent judicial system.
In Germany, anti-communist propaganda having used constant denunciations of Stasi prying to bury any recollection of the lost benefits of the East German regime, such as full employment, child care and social equality for women, the revelations of NSA prying could not be overlooked. Even leading politicians in Germany seemed genuinely indignant.
In France, political leaders made faint sounds of disapproval and rapidly changed the subject. Insofar as the incident was mentioned at all, the line was that there was no point in making a big fuss about practices that we sophisticated Great Powers know all about anyway and practice ourselves. The smug “we do it too” self-incrimination is a way to claim that France is still a big bad power, and not a mere satellite of the United States.
During a TV interview yesterday, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was shown a video of President Obama repeatedly referring to French president François Hollande as “President Houlon”. Fabius rapidly changed the subject to praise France’s important role in fostering war in Syria. The fact that the French president is considered so insignificant that Obama need not bother to learn his name was not worth noticing.
Obama’s disregard for Hollande, Hollande’s disregard for the President of Bolivia, are all part of this new world order ruled not by human concerns at all, but by “the markets”. It is not that the markets give direct orders in such matters. But the reduction of government to “governance” whose primary function is to keep the people quiet while institutions, laws and armed forces pursue the task of making the world safe for investment capital to reap its maximum profits, people are disempowered and politics becomes an empty exercise in conformity.
The explanation for this surrender lies in the ideology that has dominated Europe, and France perhaps most of all, for the past half century. A particular interpretation of the history of the mid-twentieth century has undermined confidence in popular sovereignty, (wrongly) accused of leading to “totalitarianism”. This ideology has prepared elites to abdicate in favor of technical institutions and “markets” that seem innocent of all political sins. The power of financial capital and its US champion is less the cause than the result of this political abdication.
Only this can explain the extraordinary rush of European governments to obey the slightest whim of the American master, on the eve of the negotiations for a trans-Atlantic free trade zone which European leaders will portray to their populations as compensation for the ongoing destruction of the European social welfare model. Principles, diplomatic decency, Edward Snowden, must all be sacrificed to this desperate last attempt to put Europe out of reach of the influence of its people.
A couple of commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Edward Snowden must be some sort of plant, supposedly to show people that the US government is all powerful. The affront to the Bolivian President illustrates this even more strikingly. But in the long run, awareness of the scope of this power is the first step toward liberation.
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions.