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10 Race & Class 51(3)
What does this mean, in an era of global capitalism, when the reach of transnational corporations is virtually without limit and their economic power may well be greater than that of many, except the wealthiest, nation states? Just as global capitalist corporations readily and more easily profit from states where there is little or no popular democracy, they will expect states (national and European) and political systems (national and European) to ensure that where there is ‘democracy’ it is compliant to capital’s needs. In such a contest, between weak, open and imperfect democracy, whose operations are transmitted through mass media that are often the offspring of the transnationals, and the powerbrokers of globalisation, which is likely to have more force on its side?
Alarmingly, there is developing in the EU today a trend to a convergence of parties in a political system which, under the veneer of democracy, is increasingly authoritarian.25 One of its features is the shift from ‘consent’ to ‘consensus’. Governing with the ‘consent’ of the people belongs to the old liberal-democratic era and implies a process, however imperfect, whereby people know what is on the agenda and can read, debate and intervene if they wish. Often people opted not to get involved, but they had a choice. ‘Consensus’, on the other hand, is constructed (manufactured) by the EU’s political elite, pronounced from on high and duly reported by a compliant media. People can either acquiesce or dissent (which only rarely influences decisions).
The EU’s ideology claims to be based on common values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ that are set in stone. Yet the political complexion of the EU has changed over the past ten years. In 1999, the EU had fifteen member states, twelve ‘social democratic’ governments (on the centre-left) and three on the right. Now there are twenty-seven EU governments, twenty-one on the right or extreme-right and six on the centre-left or right (including the UK government). This represents a major shift to the right across the EU, a shift in the centre of gravity that also affects the policies and practices being put on the table and agreed in the Council of Ministers and its working parties. These are what are then fed down to the nations’ populaces.
Moreover, EU ‘common values’ can change and have changed to match the prevailing political wind. The Council of the European Union (the twenty-seven governments) and the European Commission claim to have balanced ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ since 11 September 2001. Yet security wins out every time, so pandering to the wishlists of the security services and law enforcement agencies, and is rarely challenged by the ruling elites (and government circles) around the continent, or indeed by the plethora of multinational lobby groups and quasiacademic ‘thinktanks’ that cluster around the EU’s Brussels heartland.
By arguing that we are seeing a move to a ‘one-party’ or monolithic political system, I do not mean there is literally a single political party in the EU. Rather that the lack of any meaningful difference across the EU between the major political parties in their approach to the forces and powers of global capitalism means that they are effectively ‘one’. Elections, which legitimate the exercise of power by governments and the actions of their states, result in marginal change. Tony Bunyan: Just over the horizon 11
And by a ‘one-party’ political system I am not just referring to political parties.26 Democracy cannot be conceived of as simply limited to the casting of votes in elections every four or five years; democracy means creating and maintaining a political culture. A culture of diversity, debate, dissent, tolerance, respect for other cultures, a sense of history and an underlying humanity which sustains democracy between elections and which can in that space engage in and influence what is decided and done by governments and states.
Of course, there is no inevitability that ‘democracy’ will engender a political culture that is progressive. ‘Democracy’ can lead to the extreme Right taking power, authoritarianism and even fascism (see 1920s’ Italy and 1930s’ Germany). It is ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ that define a progressive democracy, fundamental human values that transcend political systems.27 But without a genuine, popular democracy, basic freedom and liberty are much more at risk. It is that erosion of democracy which will allow authoritarianism to proceed unchecked in our changing Europe. What 11 September did was to hasten and exacerbate a process that was already under way – to hothouse it, as it were. We are involved in the creation of a world, where the political and the economic are dialectically intertwined in a way that is far more sophisticated and subtle than Orwell’s 1984. But the authoritarian project I have tried to describe is as yet in its infancy.
There are some valid comparisons that can be made with the 1920s and 1930s in Italy and Germany – those that choose to can see the growth of an authoritarian state in the EU, combined with the demise of a meaningful political culture, as some did back then. Another parallel with the 1920s and 1930s is that those of us engaged with the struggle at the European level find ourselves reminded that it is the Left/progressives who are defending liberal-democratic values of accountability, scrutiny, openness, liberty and freedom. A prerequisite of effective opposition is an understanding of the nature of the problem with which we are confronted. In turn this means connecting our different struggles, uniting the pockets of resistance into movements of resistance in Europe and outside. Only then will we stand any chance of halting the juggernaut.
References 1 Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council, amending Council
Regulation (EC) No 2252/2004 on standards for security features and biometrics in passports and travel documents issued by Member States (presented by the Commission). 2 Everyone visiting the EU on a visa is being fingerprinted as of 2007–8. This together with per-
sonal data is to be stored on the EU-wide VIS database (Visa Information System) which will hold over 70 million records within ten years. 3 Council of the European Union, Council approves draft directive on driving licences. Press release, Brussels, 27 March 2006 7794/06 (Presse 90). 4 At the moment people are being asked to agree and a small number are saying no. The NHS
database will be accessible by over 350,000 ‘clinicians’ in the UK. 5 It is clear from the Council internal discussions that while the present proposal is limited to air travel in and out of the EU it will not be long before the plan will cover flights between EU