2022: The Polycrisis So Far.
An edgy essay by Otto Paans
The last 20-odd years of the EU are informally known as “the polycrisis.” If we take a brief look at the past decades, we can clearly see why this is so.
In the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, as well as numerous terrorist attacks, the Western mind closed in on itself. From this point on, the rule of surveillance began, with the NSA scandal being the mere tip of the iceberg; but like an iceberg, its insidious potential was largely invisible, so it was forgotten.
The 2004–2005 Orange Revolution in Kyiv did little to lift the feeling of unease, as it became painfully clear that the eastern border of geographical Europe was anything but stable. This conflict had barely settled down as Europe had to deal with the 2008 economic crisis and its long shadow of poverty and austerity measures, which prompted growing distrust between southern and northern EU states.
In particular, Greece was basically auctioned off to the highest bidder, its public sector left in tatters and its economic prospects shattered for years to come. Just when the European economy seemed to recover, the 2010–2012 Arab Spring and the ensuing war in Libya in 2014 caused widespread unrest in the Mediterranean countries, prompting NATO interventions. In its wake, a seemingly unending refugee stream was unleashed on the shores of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. This set the stage for rising extreme right-wing sentiments across Europe, swept up in a narrative of xenophobia along with a generous dose of neofascism.
In 2014, the Ukraine conflict that had been simmering since the Orange Revolution escalated with the Crimea annexation by Russia. And the worst of this conflict had scarcely passed, when the erupting civil war in Syria brought again thousands of refugees to the European borders, again with Spain, Greece and Italy as the tragic victims in this sad spectacle.
German chancellor Angela Merkel forced a quick decision on the issue by allowing many Syrian refugees into Germany, without even consulting her own voters or the European Commission. Meanwhile, the EU was forced to close a deal with the autocratic regime of Erdogan in Turkey to stop the stream of refugees. All the while, the so-called “Visegrad nations” — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary — voiced increasing dissent towards the European (read: French-German) ideology of Western liberalism. Instead, these countries were far more traditionally oriented, and a number of loudly proclaimed and supposed unanimously accepted “European values” did not sit well with them.
It’s too easy to write this off as willful conservatism and outdated Christianity. If Europe is indeed a unity, then all voices should be heard, even if we disagree. Simply declaring a “one-size-fits-all” liberalism for all Europeans from the pulpit in Brussels will never work.
This lesson was hammered painfully home though the Brexit in 2016. Granted, the British had always harbored some suspicion towards the — admittedly technocratic and centralizing — ambition of Brussels. And so, with a minimum of reliable information and spectacularly against their own best interests, the UK left the EU. Its latent ambivalence and suspicion towards the continent was harnessed by the cynical mongrels that ran the UKIP party, sprinkled over with a dose of racism and distrust, and peppered with empty promises of a neo-Victorian paradise that waited just around the corner and that would be restored to its full glory if only the pesky EU was left behind.
Meanwhile, the ecological crisis worsened, and the call for reducing CO2 emissions became louder. This set off two political tendencies that will stay with us for a long time. First, a hesitancy on the part of cynical and fearful politicians in the face to corporate demands. And second, the tendency to call on individual citizens to “do their green duty,” even while big industries can do as they please, or can continue to operate with very minimal concessions to the environment.
In particular the second tendency has led to a suffocating blanket of rules, duties and obligations that has nothing to do with ecology, and everything to do with greenwashing and State control. Those in power in Europe would gladly mandate heat pumps and solar panels for households, if only the big fossil industry is left alone, or, at least is given a crucial role in the “green transition.”
The COVID pandemic has only aggravated the atmosphere of crisis. Yes, there was a pandemic. No, it was not as bad as some others we could name. And yes, some of the consequences of the lockdown measures may arguably turn out to be worse than the damage caused by the pandemic itself. Massive economic damage, massive mental damage among the young and the elderly, unjustifiable breaches of judicial procedures and the haphazard declaration of the “state of exception,” all cementing already latent coercive authoritarian State tendencies.
The unsavory State tendency to take control through violence, coercion and, above all, playing out groups of citizens against one another could be seen on full display. The mask-wearers against the non-mask-wearers; the vaccinated against the unvaccinated; the responsible citizen against the dangerous conspiracy theorist. And throughout all this, the State as a clueless organization, forever trying to contain the uncontainable through control, coercion, and deals that are outright shady. And so, we witnessed the grotesque spectacle of ruthless pharmaceutical companies being lauded as the heroes and saviors of humanity. In a bid for control, States were all too eager to mandate vaccination, grasping it as the last straw to a normality that would never return, but that nevertheless could be used as a dream-like image to exercise coercion and control. Nature shows itself, and modernity has to contain it by any means necessary; but above all, the State must assert itself as the overcoming of Nature.
Now back to the EU. When Juncker ended his term, he was unfortunately succeeded by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel as the highest EU representatives: two bureaucrats united only by a social awkwardness and moral ineptitude that would be entertaining if it wasn’t so painful. They inherited an unstable continent, the European Old Man of the world. Rich — yes, but clinging on to the past and unwilling to take risks. Cunning — yes, but unfortunately reliant on negotiating and talking. Smart — yes, but not courageous enough to choose a new direction for the continent with respect for its past. And above all — afraid of being deemed politically incorrect or deviating from carefully devised procedures.
Again, against the background of all this, we should have anticipated the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The writing was for a long time on the wall. Putin has turned into a deranged dictator spurred on by a hysteric narrative of new nationalism, resentment and a menacing metaphysical theory of what it means to be Russian in the first place. The reeling EU has only just recovered from the pandemic, only to be faced with new measures of economic austerity, refugees, dangerous reliance on fossil fuel supplies, political distrust, and deep divisions within its own member states.
But are our leaders — so-called — up to the task of resolving this situation? The answer is no. If anything, the biggest crisis we currently face is lack of vision and leadership, combined with the glaring absence of true intelligence. The EU is operated like a gigantic State centered around procedures, departments of civil servants, policy guidelines, dictates, and often half-hidden advisory boards. It is ultimately procedure-based. To some degree, this approach works when the world functions as expected. But as the polycrisis has shown itself and continues to show itself, this way of proceeding can’t keep up.
The world stage develops too quickly to be approached procedurally. And yet, if we leave the procedures behind, we end up in arbitrariness. So, the question of Plato’s Republic resurfaces at a continental scale: what is the right way of governing, and who can be trusted with it?
First, a truly shared vision is necessary. When a new crisis rears its head, it won’t do the discuss matters completely through on the European, national and then regional scales. That way, it is impossible to reach consensus. What we require now is a commitment to a few core goals: the EU must become self-sufficient as far as possible. By embracing globalization, we delivered ourselves over to it. The so-called free market only functions for those who do not look too closely where those products came from, and what had to be done to produce them. Furthermore, the EU must be prepared to defend its geographical integrity. We relied too long on the post-WWII political situation — in particular the military power of the NATO — in which the US provided protection in exchange for occupation.
Second, we must stop pretending that capitalism and free trade, coupled to representative democracy, leads to a stable world. The list of crises with which I started proves this point. While politicians like to boast that they — in cooperation with the free market — have guaranteed peace on the European continent, the truth is that this local peace has always caused wars and conflicts somewhere else.
Third, objecting that many of the crises that I mentioned started somewhere outside the EU is irrelevant, because the globalist system of production has transcended the “buffering effect” of both time and space. Things happen instantaneously, and this is why the European way of decision-forming can’t keep up. So, we require a continental detachment from this cycle of global immediacy. The danger that looms here is the unhealthy resurgence of narrow-minded nationalism. It is too easy to pretend that the world does not exist, and to emphasize national identity, tradition and political conservatism. Yet, this is exactly what happens throughout the Western world. Right-wing parties enthusiastically proclaim the failure of any global project or internationalist orientation. Yet, they all refer back to a 19th-century conception of the nation state, even when it becomes increasingly clear that global problems will affect us all, whether or not we are holed up in our national fortresses.
To be sure, the global identitarian social justice elite — whom I do not count as actual leftists, despite their rhetoric — enthusiastically warms to the idea of “progress” and pays theatrical homage to ideals like gay marriage, tolerance, equality or inclusion. However, when it comes to economics, they would like to keep a deeply inequal system running, if only the trouble stays away from their own back yard.
Likewise, they glorify international treaties, cunningly bypassing national democratic interests. And so, it happens that Brussels dictates climate goals, migration regulations and sets economic goals. However, these decisions are presented to the national populations as “done deals,” facts to be passively accepted. So, in no small measure, the centrist-cum-liberal political bloc is largely responsible for the rise of the right, whom exploited the increasing feeling of abandonment by large sections of the population. After all, if the ruling parties just tell you that Brussels dictates what needs to be done, and consequently, you can’t afford a house, a study or even food, while European legislation demands that host countries feed and house immigrants, what would your response be?
So, the crises that are occurring now are just precursors to the ones that are emerging. And how could it be otherwise? From at least the late 1970s onwards, we have not actually fixed our societies, but instead merely papered over the holes and cracks. We did not really address inequality but made it bearable or liveable. And when neo-liberalism entered the scene, all problems were gladly handed over to the “free market” and we were promised that the invisible hand of demand and supply would take care of everything. A paradise awaited — if you could afford it.
Now, we see how the market has effectively sidelined governments. Banks, insurance companies and multinationals are too big to fail. And governments? Well, they have responded by trying to bribe their market partners with tax money or tax cuts, while resorting to authoritarian measures directed against their own citizens, all in the name of progress, safety, and control.
Here are a few examples: the EU has issued a proposal for a CO2 tax on all vehicles — but who can afford it?; heat pumps become mandatory for every household — even for those who are poor?; legal moves have been made to issue digital EU passports, despite the promise not to (add also to this the preemptive-strike response that people who suspected this were “conspiracy theorists”); the use of cash money is actively discouraged in order to prevent money laundering (or so the narrative runs); all cash transactions above 100 euros must be reported and logged according to the draft version of a new Dutch law. So, while the multinationals are left alone, the citizen becomes the site on which State power is exercised.
While the polycrisis may convince us that external threats loom large over Europe (a narrative that both right and left enthusiastically embrace, either by referring to migration or the climate), the truth is that the biggest and most dangerous crisis slowly and invisibly takes place within Europe, and, in no small measure, also in the US, Canada, and Australia. The basic choice seems simple now: either we must elect leaders who promise a neoliberal, progress-oriented, identitarian, social justice-driven, politically-correct heaven, if only you have yourself checked, traced, controlled, and stripped of your money; or we have to choose some nationalist, right-wing, reactionary with ideas that are in effect new versions of the theories that were peddled during the Nazi era.
As W.B. Yeats wrote in The Second Coming, “the center cannnot hold”: the extremes have taken over, while the substrate on which society is built, namely mutual trust and aid, is systematically eroded by those who claim to rule us. Can this erosion be reversed? Certainly. But the current EU, and the Western world more generally, is yet not up to it. It’s like a huge sticker pasted over our current political structure: “Sorry, out of order!”
We need regeneration, repair and replacements — urgently. Otherwise, we might have only the tragic dilemma of a so-called choice between the likes of Orban and Trump on the one hand, or else armies of anonymous, politically correct EU representatives on the other, for the foreseeable future….
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 755
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 2 January 2023
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