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.