Book Review by Gian Giacomo Fusco
For those wanting a clear and concise summary of the left case against the euro and of the misrepresentation of German European Hegemon as the consummation of the “European Idea”, there is no way around this book. Nowhere has the political economy of the common currency and of German ascendancy in Europe been more clearly exposed.
WOLFGANGSTREECK – Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies
Costas Lapavitsas is the most important commentator on the EU and its current crises, including Brexit. This is one of the most significant books on modern politics to appear in the last decade, and virtually the only one fully to grasp the nature of our present situation.RICHARD TUCK – Harvard University
Costas Lapavitsas’ latest book The Left Case against the EU confirms it: the always-enthusiastic back cover blurbs must not be fully trusted. This work is neither a clear and concise summary of the left case against the euro nor the most significant book on modern politics to appear in the last decade. Rather it seems a further signal of the prolonged crisis of identity of the left.
The EU, Lapavitsas argues, is a ‘transnational juggernaut geared to neoliberal and hierarchical motion‘ (p. 122). What has been originally designed as a democratic project for the harmonious coexistence of European nations turned out to be an economic and political death trap. The EU, is not ‘a purveyor of soft power, is a hierarchical alliance of nation-states that have created the institutional framework of a single market relentlessly promoting neoliberalism‘ (p. 126). By tracing on the evolution of the EU since its origins, the book uncovers with precision the hegemonic role of German economic interests, and the neoliberal drive guiding the process of integration. There is nothing to be celebrated in the EU for the left; on the contrary, secession is necessary to open up the way for anti-capitalist and socialist policies.
Despite the argumentative lucidity in presenting the unamendable flaws of the EU (which represent the main merit of the book), Lapavitsas ultimately fails in exposing how and why exiting the EU would be functional to the fostering of progressive policies and the advancement of socialism. The book portrays severance from EU as the only option remained to the left to implement its agenda, however it does so almost teleologically, without due engagement with the complexity and the political risks that a return to Westphalian Europe inevitably entails.
In the first chapter, Lapavitsas distances immediately himself from those on the left who see some good in the EU. He refers briefly to Toni Negri, who ‘fervently argued that the EU would overcome the constraints of the nation-state and provide a counterweight to ruthless US capitalism‘ (p. 8). But, the main target of his polemic is that sect of the European left that is still cultivating the illusion of making of the EU a progressive-democratic enterprise. All the attempts at reforming the EU will ultimately clash against the legal and political machinery of the European institutions. ‘The first requirement for the left‘, he argues, ‘is to tackle the belief that the EU could be radically reformed from within‘ (p. 121). This is just a delusional stance, which keeps returning in experiences like DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025).
Pretty much in line with the ideological condition of the neoliberal age, where proposing and defending a strong welfare state is somehow a revolutionary stance, Lapavitsas sustains a form of left-Keynesian recipe (based on nationalisation of banks and strategic resources) to reframe the dominion of capital over labour. The left he has in mind should work actively to elaborate exit strategies to restore national sovereignty as a precondition to counter neoliberal hegemony. Lapavitsas seems to opt for a sort of social-democrat-left-nationalism. However, he overlooks the fact that in the midst of the current crisis of the European Union, the increasing consensus for right-wing (and post-fascist) movements is making a left sovereign resolution a remote possibility.
What is more, the vocabulary of let’s restore national sovereignty belongs definitively to the right. And this is a further problematic aspect. Indeed, if we take out from the text words like “plebeian” and references to capital and labour, the sense and the scope of Lapavitsas’ proposition does not differ significantly from right-wing-populist political agenda: leave the EU, restore national sovereignty, take back control and redistribute resources. We live in post-ideological times, in which the right has appropriate firmly the traditional discourses of the left, gaining a decisive grip on lower social classes. Before making a left case against the EU, thus, the primary task for the left would be to re-establish the contours of its own identity.
The thesis advanced by this book seems to be hinged upon a sort of cognitive-historical dissonance, manifested in openly factually-wrong sentences like ‘For the plebeian classes of Europe, sovereignty has never been anathema‘ (p. 130) and ‘For workers and the poor, sovereignty has a popular dimension representing the right to be consulted but also to refuse government policies‘ (p. 130). Besides this, we find trivial-tautological sentences like ‘Workers’ internationalism always starts at home‘ (p. 141) and ‘Popular sovereignty and democracy are dangerous for the ruling elites of capitalist societies‘ (p. 130). It is also worth mentioning statements like the nation (Italics mine) ‘is the basis on which to develop a strategy for the left in Europe today‘ (p. 130). For Lapavitsas, though, the old-Europe of nations appears as a sort of natural-environment for left struggles, the space in which to create a renewed form of socialist internationalism.
Leaving aside the catching character of these statements, Lapavitsas’ proposal does not stand the confront with history. Except if we want to consider as virtuous the experiences of actually existing socialism, the history of the European left teaches us that state’s sovereignty and the nation are at odds with the working class and the plebeian strata. And what we usually call popular sovereignty is ultimately a myth, used to legitimise the status quo. The blood that washed the European battlefields in the last century, reminds us how nations undermined the very existence of the workers. A certain degree of blindness is needed to not sees that sovereign institutions are not of all, they are instruments that have been used – and are still used – to repress the ambitions of the lower classes.
The miscalculation of social-democrats (and ultimately of Lapavitsas’ proposal) is to believe in the possibility of taking possession of and changing for good the liberal capitalist state. However, as the now-long history of neo-liberalism demonstrates, western democracies do not have the antibodies to prevent the (re)organisation of the ruling classes and the dominion of capital over labour. Indeed, the state remains, as Marx argued, a committee for the management of the affairs of the bourgeoisie.
In recent book, the historian Enzo Traverso, argued that ‘if history is a symbolic relationship between the past as a field of experience and the future as horizon of expectations, at the beginning of the twenty-first century this dialectic seems to have vanished: the world has retreated in the present and does not seem able to project itself into the future‘. The end of history and the triumph of capitalist-liberal democracy produced a desertification of the political imagination. There is no alternative, forget about utopia: hang your head and accept reality.
Lapavitsas’ book seems to be stuck in this arid intellectual atmosphere. He is certainly successful in explaining the neoliberal un-changeable essence of the EU. However, the appeal to sovereignty, the nation and to Keynesian policies are old solutions that have already proven themselves not to be effective in fostering socialism and in emancipating the lower classes. A radically new left proposal seems needed, especially in light of the fact that the traditional leftist and social democratic discourses have now been appropriated by right-wing populism. More than ever before, the task for the left is to recognise the obsolescence of the modern political and economic thought and to imagine a new future.