Europe is moving forward at an unsteady and uncertain pace. Over the last few years, nationalist, supremacist and xenophobic political parties have managed to take over the European political agenda, taking advantage of its lack of clear direction (Alston, 2017, Castells et al., 2018). However, despite the urgency of this challenge, European institutions (the European Commission’s White Paper, 2017) are still not fully aware that the emerging populisms and authoritarianisms have not arisen from outside causes. In fact, they are founded on local elements that have fed on the cultural pattern of northern European moralist self-sufficiency, the corruption that destabilized the youngest democracies, and the short-term interest of national politics (Bartlett, 2018; Cardoso, 2018).
Ten years have passed since the financial crisis that has resulted in one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the European south to north over the last fifty years (Castells, 2012; Bauman & Bordoni, 2014; Valdivia, 2017a, 2017b). The structural changes arising since then have led to Europe’s present being the past of other Western countries, where the neoliberal economic model has already imposed itself as the sole hegemony based on two fundamental principles: the “financialization” of any aspect of social life; and the devaluation of the public sphere, with its commercial privatization (Sassen, 2014; Milanovic, 2016; Castells et al., 2018). The numerous examples of this are well-known to everyone. Its various manifestations do have one constant: increased inequality and social vulnerability (Flesher-Fominaya, 2013; Milanovic, 2016; Piketty, 2018).
The reaction to this crisis that has been incubating in Spain over these years brings us face to face with new social imaginaries and authoritarian policies (Cardoso & Jacobetty, 2012; Crouch, 2018). What did the main supporters of austerity expect a few years ago? That people would congratulate themselves and their politicians for dismantling the systems of social guarantees? (Castells et al., 2018). Quite the reverse: we are now again at the threshold of a new crisis (so far political; we’ll see how long it is before it also becomes economic) embodied in the emergence of nationalism and its nativistic and populist variants (Mudde 2017a, 2017b; Wodak, 2015; Rensmann, 2017).
What is surprising is that Brussels is still acting on automatic political pilot, despite the efforts for economic redistribution that on paper are reflected in its next budget (European Commission’s New Narrative, 2014; European Commission’s White Paper, 2017). This surprising lack of action is due to a number of factors, including the fact that the European Union still does not operate as a structure of member states, but as an association (or network, as my admired Manuel Castells prefers to define it) of nations (Castells et al., 2018). It is enough to know the basic principles of the decision-making process in European institutions and of the of so-called “comitology” to understand that national governments still make the key decisions today; and what’s more, among the national governments, those that pay or believe they contribute most to the European budget (Zaiotti, 2008).
This is one of the most serious mistakes made by numerous political and institutional players: believing that you can be pro-European and nationalist at the same time. This is not possible due to a contradiction that there is no way of resolving: the nation state is not capable of legislating and regulating the mechanisms and economic flows of globalization with the necessary force and speed (Milanovic, 2016). Again, there is no lack of examples. Were it not for the European Union, could the regulation on data protection that entered into force on the continent be acting with sufficient legal power if this regulation had been adopted by a Spanish autonomous region or region of Europe? The answer is clear. Neither regions nor nations now have the economic, political, legal or administrative capacity to regulate the major structural changes that affect their citizens, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. At most, and only in certain contexts, municipal organizations may attenuate or influence the application of some processes, but cannot reverse them.
The situation described so far can be understood by anyone. However, there is a more pressing and complex question to which an answer still has to be given. Why in the wake of the 2008 crisis have we seen the emergence of a re-tribalized society, instead of a redistribution of economic surpluses, of social benefits, and of shared cultural principles? (Bartlett, 2018; Piketty, 2018) My colleagues who are economists, political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists engage in extended discussions on a problem that (without wishing to limit its multi-faceted nature) is closely linked to something in which specialists in literary and humanistic studies in general are the best experts: fiction (Caracciolo, 2014; Pujante, 2017).
I am referring specifically to a fiction created and sustained by the more or less aware opportunism of populism and nationalism (Müller, 2016). In this fiction I am talking about, the nation constitutes the nostalgic paradigm of a historical past in which the nation-state supposedly controlled its destiny, with all its faults, and managed and protected those who felt part of the imaginary community that sheltered them. This fictional nationalist, populist and nativistic political narrative tells us the powerful story that around 2008 the nation states lost their autonomy, their capacity to choose, their right to decide, their expression: in short, everything that made each a unique, different and free people.
Given the lack of response of the European institutions, this invention has operated across the continent with specific nuances and local differences right up to the creation of the most recent authoritarianism (Wodak, 2016). The formula has functioned with extraordinary success for reactionary and xenophobic political forces because it is simple, easily understood by anyone, and most importantly, because it appeals directly to emotions. In this imaginary artifice citizens have developed a specific psycho-social, political and cultural mechanism.
First, the mythical and legendary past is identified with another that was not replete with major social injustices and was chronologically prior to the existence of the European Union. Second, the imaginary nation-state community is postulated as equivalent to the Welfare State. Third, one or more external agents are discovered to be responsible for the loss of the Welfare State. Fourth, the populist, supremacist and nationalist political and cultural actors promise that as soon as they are in power the national sovereignty will be restored, thus putting an end to all the problems of a conflict presented starkly as between the “elite” and the “people.” These two terms, “elite” and “people”, are turned into theological principles when the agent pronouncing them defines them at the same time. Once more History, as in the excellent recent study by Lars Rensmann in The Politics of Unreason (2017), offers us examples of these mechanisms: post Weimar Germany (Arendt, 1951).
The formula is not all that new. That is what makes even more surprising the fact that the response from the democratic political institutions and administrations has been mistaken, and that now there is talk of the crisis of liberal principles. My reading of the situation is different. Rather than being faced by the crisis of liberalism as a model, we are dealing with a tribalized renewal of societies after the almost complete disappearance of the European social-democratic movements as a result of their management of the 2008 financial crisis. With the exception of Portugal and the current Spanish experiment, whose scope of impact we can still not judge, the examples provided by the debacle of the socialist parties are quite clear: in the Netherlands, for example, the Labor Party (PVdA) has become practically extinct and its voters have shifted to the extreme left or right. Is it possible to counter extremism? Yes, I believe that it is, but it requires audacity and political will. To be continued.
Director of the National School for Literary Studies of the Netherlands
University of Groningen (the Netherlands)
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