One Question
The European Left

One Question
The European Left

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

What are the challenges and opportunities for the Left in Europe?

With responses from: G M Tamás; Donatella Della Porta; Josep Maria Antentas; Thomas Fazi; Françoise Vergès; Alen Toplišek; Philippe Marlière; Bice Maiguashca & Andrew Schaap; Benjamin Opratko; Antonis Vradis; Catherine Samary; Andrzej Żebrowski; Marco Vanzulli; Catarina Príncipe; Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

The Left in Europe

G M Tamás

Like so often in history, judging the present is made difficult by established attachments and enmities. The European Left today is preoccupied still with the ancient struggle against globalisation and neoliberalism – the aftereffects of which can still be felt, granted – and cannot adapt its strategies to the new epoch of protectionism and ethnicism (the latter term defined in my ‘Ethnicism after Nationalism’ in Socialist Register 2016), resulting in the resounding victories of the far Right almost everywhere.

There is not much about the European Union a person on the Left might love. It is an institution of capitalism just as much as the nation-states are. It is highly imperfect: it is unfair and chaotic, being led as it is by short-sighted philistines. But it is being undermined by frankly reactionary governments, especially from the former Habsburg empire, abandoned by England and subjected to the unremitting hostility of the new regime in the United States and of Putin’s Russia.

This fundamental fact makes it unlikely that an anti-European Left is possible: the thrust of the attack of the main enemy – the extreme Right – makes the hostility among many of us felt towards the European Union futile at best, suicidal at worst. The League of Nations was unloved, too, but its dissolution led to Munich and to the Nazi conquest of Europe. It is always self-defeating when the Left allies itself with, or allows itself to be the dupe of, nationalist, ethnicist, xenophobic or racist forces of whatever nature, and it has also been frequently dishonourable.

This historical rule of thumb is shown to be valid again in the most burning issue of the moment, the refugee crisis, specifically, and the migration problem generally, caused by global and regional inequality, by war and by the ecological disaster. Migration has been used efficiently by the far Right everywhere to take power and to change political opinion into one dominated not simply by authoritarianism as such, but by a veritable passion of inequality, aiming – like fascism – at the obliteration of the whole heritage of Enlightenment and at a preventive counter-revolution against a possible socialist renewal.

And we see the likes of Sahra Wagenknecht – one of the most influential leaders of the German, and hence of the European, Left – mouthing xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-European platitudes in the by now customary ‘left populist’ style that I consider a menace. This does not help to address the chief peril – the post-fascist domination of politics and the new decline of bourgeois liberalism – to the world and to ourselves. READ MORE

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic logic which promotes ideals of ‘free trade’, and reduces the role of government to a facilitator of deregulation and privatisation. But accompanying the economics has always been a particular worldview or ideology, and neoliberalism in fact relies on a whole social system of support and legitimation.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, theologian and social theorist Adam Kotsko considers neoliberalism as a form of political theology, to understand how it functions in societies not only as a mode of economics, but also politically and culturally as a moral order. In this interview, I discuss with him some of the core ideas in the book.

Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons (Stanford University, 2018) and The Prince of This World (Stanford University, 2016), and the translator of many works by Giorgio Agamben. Visit his professional site for more information about his work, including links to articles and interviews.

Adam Kotsko

In your book, you approach neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. What does political theology bring to the analysis of neoliberalism?

Adam Kotsko: Political theology has meant many things since the term was coined in the early 1920s by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and so I was aware going into this project that I was at the risk of trying to explain the unknown by the unknown. In the book, I try to define the term in a way that is faithful to the intentions of earlier political theologians like Schmitt, while also making it more broadly useful. Ultimately, I view political theology as the study of the structures and sources of legitimacy – of the ways that people attempt to answer the question of who should be in charge and why.

A lot of times, people think of political theology as a discipline that points out parallels between theological and political structures – for instance, the sovereignty of the executive branch bears comparison with the sovereignty of God – but I think that the focus on legitimacy allows us to account for why those parallels exist: namely, because both the theological and the political orders are asking for our trust, for our faith. Neoliberalism is no exception to that, though most analyses of neoliberalism as a system do no foreground those questions of how the system legitimates itself. READ MORE

One Question
Democracy

One Question
Democracy

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Is democracy working?

President Trump

Jeremy Gilbert

The question of whether democracy is working obviously depends on what we mean by ‘democracy’ and what we mean by ‘working’. But let me answer the question as naively as possible. By ‘democracy’, let us mean the existing institutions of liberal representative multi-party democracy in most countries that have such institutions. By ‘working’ let us mean ‘doing the thing that they are hypothetically supposed to do’. The definition of the latter is obviously itself contentious, but let us agree that if they are supposed to do anything, those institutions are supposed to translate the express wishes and desires of electorates (insofar as they can be measured) into the programmes enacted by their governments.

From this perspective, it is clear that they are not working and have not been, across much of the globe, since the 1970s. The general neoliberal programme has never enjoyed a clear majority mandate anywhere (except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of state socialism).

It has been implemented by governments from the notional Right, elected by an electorate who believed that they would enact socially conservative measures that would slow down processes of social dislocation and cultural change; those governments may have passed some reactionary measures, but they slowed down nothing.

It has been enacted by governments from the notional left, elected by electorates who for the most part expected them to restore and extend post-war social democratic settlements; those governments may have passed some measures to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality, but they have rarely passed a measure that would have been recognised as social democratic by even the most right-wing members of their own parties just a decade or two previously.

Such a situation cannot be described as ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense. READ MORE