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The Bourgeois Internationale, Part II


David Singh Grewal is Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. 

This post is Part II of David Grewal’s response to Mutant Neoliberalism, Part I is available here. You can find the full symposium here.


mutant neolib imageAs I noted in my first post, it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will force a reckoning with the democratic deficit in the European Union and prompt a renewal of left-wing politics across the continent. However, the existing constitutional machinery of the five presidencies that make up the EU is both complex and considerably resistant to change, even (perhaps especially) in a crisis. In 2014, in a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, I wondered what we could expect from “today’s unhappy alliance between the remnants of the old workers’ parties of Western Europe and the Bundesbank?” It was mainly a rhetorical question: I expected very little from the political alliance behind “zombie” neoliberalism in Europe. But in light of what Callison and Manfredi term neoliberalism’s mutations, it is worth noting what has in fact come to pass since then: electoral defeat after electoral defeat for the left (and even center-left). This trend should give pause to those who think further federalization will provide the answer to Europe’s deep ordoliberal tendencies, and yet that seems to be the only path that many progressives in Europe can imagine (another TINA, but a teleological one).

Following Cooper’s cogent analysis, what we should expect is precisely what we have been seeing: stasis at the level of the institutions and far-right electoral strategies that leverage anti-austerity sentiment among ordinary voters by promising something that the straitjacketed parties of the mainstream center-left and even the far left have been mostly unwilling to offer: a break with neoliberalism and, if that agenda requires it, a break with ‘Europe.’ Again, the COVID-19 pandemic seems more likely to consolidate rather than repudiate this trend. It will not soon be forgotten that even pro-EU governments in France and Germany called a panicked halt to the export of medical equipment to a stricken Italy while national borders were raised again across the continent.

These events brings us to the second piece I want to discuss, Slobodian and Plehwe’s history of the rise of Eurosceptic neoliberalism, “Neoliberals against Europe,” which presents an important counter to any simplistic equation of the EU with neoliberalism (or ordoliberalism) and hence of Euroscepticism with anti-neoliberalism.

Slobodian and Plehwe’s major focus is the AfD in Germany, and the Eurosceptic reaction in Britain that culminated in Brexit, along with various Belgium-based, Europe-wide think tanks. However, Germany and Britain may both be atypical, and not just because both are (were) net contributors to the EU budget and relatively privileged in the institutional make-up of the EU (Germany by virtue of the structure of the Eurozone, Britain by its exceptional concessions). France and Italy, which Cooper explores, are more ambivalent cases; it is worth noting that neither Eurosceptics Le Pen or Salvini have adopted full Frexit or Italexit rhetoric.

First, it is not obvious that Britain ever “fit” into the EU, at least post-Maastricht, which is why Euroscepticism has always had such a strong following there, left, right and center. How British Euroscepticism interacts with neoliberalism is considerably complex. As revealed in the Brexit debates but going back to debates over joining the European Community in the 1970s, British conservatives have been both prominent supporters of integration and opponents of it. But the same must be said of the British left, with the old Labour Bennite line finding continuing support even today, as in Corbyn’s alleged ambivalence about the EU.

Second, it seems the “peculiarities of German history,” which historians David Blackbourn and Geoffrey Eley diagnosed in its nineteenth-century, remain on full display in the twentieth and twenty-first. In the aftermath of the Third Reich, Germany was first divided and then, when reunited, achieved its normalcy precisely through its disappearance into “Europe.” But whether Germany was thereby Europeanized or Europe was rendered German (in its ordoliberal disciplines) perhaps depends on which EU institution you consider. Ordoliberalism is usually associated with Eurozone policies, and some actions of the Commission; the link between ordoliberalism and the ECJ is more complex. (Its interpretation of the “four freedoms” has come under increasing scrutiny). But the Council presents the face of a more straightforward politics of internationalism or inter-governmentalism while the Parliament is the nascent (arguably stillborn) vehicle of popular representation beyond the nation-state. In this sense, just as in the UK and Germany, we find considerable complexity in assessing “Europe.” Just as there are “Neoliberals against Europe,” as Slobodian and Plehwe remind us, there are of course “Neoliberals for Europe.”

What, then, does a history of Euroskeptic neoliberalism reveal? It shows the diversity of both national and European politics, and the difficulty of pinning a single label on the complex of institutions called “Europe.” Does this observation, in itself, challenge the criticism of the EU for its neoliberal/ordoliberal orientation? Despite Slobodian and Plehwe’s suggestion that it might (p. 90), I don’t think this follows. It may help to distinguish between the ideology and the practice of neoliberalism (“actually existing neoliberalism”). Yes, a ragtag band of political and ideological entrepreneurs, mostly located in Northern Europe, oppose European unification fearing that it is, in effect, a socialist set-up. But every day in Southern Europe the possibility of democratic control of the economy is denied owing to an ordoliberalism reproduced through the very structure of European integration, particularly the halfway house of its monetary union.

Which should we pay attention to? Critics of the EU such as Wolfgang Streeck and others suggest the latter; Slobodian and Plehwe now suggest the former (as well as, in other work, the latter) . The question is which is the more powerful, sustaining, foundational dynamic? I suspect, as a matter of constitutional and economic arrangements, the latter. In this regard, who claimed amusingly that Hayek “would have been a Brexiteer” is mistaken: Hayek’s interest in the economic consequences of what he called “inter-state federalism” remains in many ways unsurpassed, and strongly indicates that, for some, the “halfway house” (as I have been describing it) of European integration is a feature, not a bug of constitutional design.

What should we conclude from these fascinating excursions by Cooper and Slobodian and Plehwe into the history of European neoliberalism? The first point is recognition of the complexity of any commitment to “neoliberalism,” whether in its theoretical purity or the policy world of “actually existing neoliberalism.” The second point concerns method. The current academic fascination with neoliberalism followed on its intellectual-historical excavation and reconstruction in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis – by Angus Burgin, Daniel Stedman-Jones, Jamie Peck, and others. This intellectual historiography then appropriately turned to broader swathes of social and economic history, as in the work of Melinda Cooper and several other contributors to the present volume, including Slobodian’s own important book on the “Geneva School” of ordo-globalists pushing international economic integration. But what often remains implicit in such histories is something like a political theory of neoliberalism, to which a more recent wave of scholarship by political theorists, including Wendy Brown (another contributor to the volume) and Thomas Biebricher have more recently contributed. What they emphasize – and what my co-author Jedediah Purdy and I have insisted upon in understanding its legal instantiation – is that at the heart of neoliberalism (which is vague and shape-shifting, in just the “mutant” ways that this volume explores) is a conflict between democracy and capitalism. Slobodian and Plehwe put this point well in the final line of their contribution: we should “understand neoliberalism as embodying less a credo than an injunction—to defend capitalism against democracy” (p. 105).

But what does it mean to take democracy seriously, as the constitutive other of neoliberalism (or capitalism)? I think it means, to start, taking the “democratic deficit” seriously both at the level of political-theoretic diagnosis and in a detailed scrutiny of existing institutions of “governance.” What does doing so suggest about the project of European integration, the particular theme of Cooper’s and Slobodian and Plehwe’s contributions? It is worth remembering that before the financial crisis of 2008, before the mass migration of 2015, before the Brexit referendum vote of 2016 and actual Brexit in 2020—and before the rise of any anti-austerity far-right parties offering up mutant neoliberalism—majorities in France and the Netherlands (again: France and the Netherlands) called for a halt to the deepening of European integration, rejecting the Constitution drawn up by the eminent French politician Giscard D’Estaing. The institutions of European integration have effectively been adrift since then, achieving partial de facto constitutionalization through intergovernmental means (i.e., in the Treaty of Lisbon) that belie many straightforward theories of political legitimacy. This circumstance has given rise to reaction, mostly muted on the left by fears of conspiring with right-wing (often deglobalizing) politics and exploited on the right to establish a social base for new or reinvigorated political parties. This is a complex situation that calls for careful tactical, strategic, and visionary thinking of a kind that is glaringly missing. The essays in Mutant Neoliberalism are thus much needed, as are the conversations we must hope they provoke.