Archive for October, 2011

You’re doomed! Again.

An opinion poll on global threats might not seem an obvious cause for celebration. Last week, the European Commission nonetheless declared itself cheered by the results of Special Eurobarometer 372. Respondents had ranked various looming disasters in a satisfactory manner.

Europeans, it appears, are increasingly discerning about their environmental and financial meltdowns, their water shortages, demographic collapses, pandemics and nuclear proliferations, even if they are still disappointingly poor at spontaneously coming up with new global threats of their own (Question 1a).

One issue the poll did not probe though: just how fed up is the public with these constant existential crises? The apocalyptic tenor of EU politics – nervous politicians praying for European salvation and prophesying war – is becoming rather draining. The newspapers are full of commentaries on the relentlessness of our crisis-driven politics.

Of course, politicians dislike the suggestion that they use disaster as political capital. But if they deny being apocalyptic in their handling of these challenges, they are actually blocking out a large part of their shared heritage. European culture is rooted in the politics of disaster and salvation.

Rewind 500 years and there was a widespread mood in Europe of resignation and fatalism. Greek philosophy had proved persuasive in its claim that a golden age had passed, that the world was decaying, and that to try to alter the situation would be to tempt fate.

This thinking was increasingly opposed by a strain of radical Protestantism which leaked into politics through events such as the English Civil War. The secular notions of apocalypse and salvation that emerged spawned the modern idea of progress. Self-improvement, it was now argued, would permit humanity to stave off disaster.

The battle between sceptics and progressives has been running ever since. But it has retained a distinctly old-testament flavour. Just as biblical salvation could not come without terror and calamity, so it seems political progress today cannot be achieved without fear and crisis.

Take those Eurobarometer results. EU officials actually congratulated themselves on the worsening of climate fears since the Copenhagen summit. They interpreted this not as a sad indictment of the EU’s diplomatic performance at the 2009 talks but as a useful catalyst to more progressive policies.

Academics point out other oddities in the way politicians deal with crises:

1. the initial reactionary response. Just as biblical disasters were interpreted as a judgment on the state of humanity, so crisis today triggers a drastic stocktaking of existing progressive policies. The demographic crisis, for example, caused a reassessment of even common-sense measures such as improvements to healthcare and the labour-force participation of women.

2. the radicalism which follows. In order to restore faith in progress and the obligatory notion that we will be better off than our parents, a radical rethink is ordered. The desire to reassure voters about their children’s prospects after the financial crisis has, for example, powered the British government’s most radical economic policies.

3. the refusal to accept the unfairness of disaster. Biblical disasters hit only the wicked while the good were saved. Modern crises, by contrast, are distinctly unfair, affecting the innocent and allowing free-riders to escape. It is thus imperative to impose reason and justice on them. Sinners, such as bankers, must be converted or punished.

Back at the Euro-crisis, these symptoms are clear. Sinner states are being punished. The policies that launched the Euro have been written off, and radical new measures proposed. Where political progress has been achieved, it is only with the aid of a relentless series of disasters. And all the while, from the sidelines, the sceptics wait for the Euro’s collapse and rehearse their told-you-so’s.

The deadlock in the Eurozone as a showdown between northern European Protestantism and Greek-style fatalism? That would be a little too neat. But the EU would certainly save a lot of time and money if those who believed in the inevitability of a break-up were a little less fatalistic and if those pursuing further integration did not make progress quite so contingent upon disaster.

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High time for some political theatre

Strange reports from the European Commission. In the middle of meetings on the future of Europe, officials are disappearing—simply being willed out of existence. The phenomenon affects any official who advocates the use of devious methods to improve the EU’s standing with its citizens and with the markets. Commission workers who, for example, suggest the Union should resort to political theatre or finally learn to ‘spin’ information are simply frozen out.

There is a name for this kind of behaviour: groupthink. In groups, people will cheerfully deceive themselves as to the precariousness of their situation and aggressively censor out the obvious solutions (as well as anyone who proposes them). Given that EU decision-making occurs under almost perfect laboratory conditions, it would have been a miracle if Brussels were not a hotbed for this sort of thing.

Happily, our eurocrats are in fine company. Over the years, groupthink has been identified as the cause of some really first-rate catastrophes—from Pearl Harbour and the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In each case, the important decisions were being taken by a close-knit group who did not want to endanger the fragile consensus between them by raising even the most obvious objections or alternatives.

The usual spur for this kind of collective self-censorship is cognitive dissonance—the instinctive rejection of any idea which clashes with a group’s picture of itself. Back in 1941 for example, the Pacific Fleet refused to prepare for a Japanese attack because the admirals were desperate to think of the US as mighty and terrifying rather than nervous and vulnerable.

The same sort of thing is at work in Brussels. If Commission officials prescribe a wholesome tonic of democracy, transparency and unfiltered information, it is because more devious methods of promoting the EU run counter to their picture of the bloc as an organic, reasonable and benevolent polity.

Unfortunately, this means that the EU is currently being kept afloat only by its own double standards. Officials in Brussels loudly rule out the use of devious PR-practices but desperately hope the Commission representations in the member states fully exploit the leeway given them.

Even without all this misplaced self-censorship, the European Union would face a steeper survival-challenge than most. Policymakers in more established polities merely have to fight off their critics; EU officials have first to persuade people that theirs actually is a political system. The clue is in the term ‘eurosceptic’: popular hostility poses less of a problem these days than does sheer disbelief.

In the same way as people are asking themselves whether the bits of coloured paper in their wallets really do amount to a currency, so too they are wondering whether the abstract and cerebral European Union really amounts to a political system. Brussels can rely on nothing more coercive or tangible than persuasion, habit and spectacle to convince publics that the laws it produces really do count as laws.

It might  therefore be helpful for officials to stop picturing the EU as a real polity pursuing a convincing mission that will be accepted if only the very reasonable European public receives enough information about it. How about thinking of the EU as a make-believe polity with a make-believe fiat currency, which can be sustained only by appealing to the strange irrationality that drives modern life?

Over the centuries many a self-styled enlightened regime has faced the dilemma whether to use apparently unfitting methods to bolster itself. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli used a simple formulation to help his political masters overcome the inevitable cognitive dissonance. He told them that if a new regime was glorious, it warranted establishment by inglorious methods. The high purpose justified the low means.

A post-modern Machiavelli would probably choose a rather different formulation. Academics, from Austrian anarcho-capitalists to French politico-sociologists have shown that no political system is benign, organic or reasonable let alone glorious. If that’s so, EU officials can presumably stop kidding themselves and feel at liberty to use inglorious methods to establish theirs.

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