Why it is so hard to understand Europe – and its Crisis

The concept of ´Europe´ first dawned on me when I was in the collecting age, that is, about seven or eight. Among the many things I collected were stamps, and among these I was especially interested in this subcollection carrying the letters EGKS – which in Dutch stands for European Community of Coal and Steel. Why was I so enthousiastic about them? It must have had something to do with the mood of those times – with World War II less then twenty-five years in the past, post-war food rationing still less long ago, and finally some good quality of life available for larger groups in European societies. The basis of the newly acquired good life consisted in two things: peace, and the rebuilding of European trade and industry. An industry of which the rock-bottom consisted in coalmining and steelworks.

Some years later, EGKS changed to EEG, European Economic Community, which, as is well known, later transformed into the European Union. Now, as a result of debt, and the emotions around it, a struggle has come to the surface – a struggle about what Europe is, who belongs to it, and on what grounds. Trying to follow the debates about the possible bailout of Greece, in their incredible intensity, I am reminded of the low level of my knowledge of economics. On the one hand, economics seems so emotional, on the other it is based on mathematical models that I could never feign to grasp.

The crisis is also, however, dominated by good old school-yard games, deciding who are the alpha males, and who can decide how the common rules will be applied. A couple of new males showed up on the yard, a short while ago, dressing more casual than usual, and with a grin on their faces that provoked. They not only stirred up the culture of ‘Europe’ as it shows on the screen, but they certainly stirred up this discussion about the foundations of what has been taken for granted for a long time. That what is decided about European states and their interconnected economies, floats on a web of institutions, banks, governments, their representatives, voting citizens, and populist movements that is hard to unravel, and about which we believe what a few select ‘experts’ say for the camera.

I try to understand what happens, and delve in the largely perished remnants of my school and university education on the subject of economy. In highschool it was largely Keynes. As long as we understood Keynes, we were allright. In university, during my years in sociology we had one class which was called PEMA, which stood for political-economic analysis of society. It consisted of lectures, which were historical, and treated old European thinkers like Ricardo and Smith. And there was a very strange book, which we had to read by ourselves. It had a grey cover, and a type-writer font within, and was published in the USSR. It was so theoretical and boring, and out of touch with anything, that I could hardly read it. I reserved four days for the four hundred pages, and managed to pass the exam, but immediately forgot what I had read. Now I am sorry that I didn’t pay more attention, at least during the lectures.

What did remain from that time, though, is the insight that economics is very theoretical. I mean, almost everything seems to depend on the theory you choose. And although I am a great lover of theory, I lost my interest in the subject of political economy because of its complete lack of connection with historical and cultural reality. And that, it seems, is what is at stake now, in the debates about Greece, and the European debt crisis. European history, and clashing European cultures.

Nobody nowadays seem to talk about how Europe developed its complicated negotiations between cultures through history – but this history could help to understand the present struggles. Struggles, not only, between countries, but also between culture groups or peoples within countries. Catalans, Basks, Scots, Britons, Friesians – all over Europe, there are not only countries, but a patchwork of cultures and languages – crossing borders and putting strain on national unities from within. Fighting their own regional economic struggles, which also invisibly are negotiated behind the screenplay of European national politics. As they surely are behind the men of Syriza, as well as behind the Dijsselbloems and all the others.

I remember another time when we discussed the identity of Europe – when Yugoslavia broke up, and in the ‘heart’, so to speak, of the continent, unexpected wars had to be dealt with. Then we heard, and we still do, a lot about the proclaimed ‘Christian’ identity of Europe. An identity which is to me as much a chimerea as Europe’s economical and political identity. It was invoked in the past to spur on conflicts with ‘Asian’, ‘Moorish’, and other ‘foreign’ peoples. It was also referred to in order to support large scale expulsion, discrimination, or even murder of ‘others’. Others which always have been around on European soil. We Europeans are others too, among ourselves.

Continents by nature have no borders, and no clear identities. Nor do religions. Nor unions of nations that try to reserve the best trade deals for their in-group. Humans will always work their way around the artificial borders of any group of peoples, who, despite their complex negotiated internal differences, try to sell themselves off as a unity. Or as a union. At great costs even, as the large quantities of human casualties of ‘Europe’ and its borders remind us of every day. Just rethinking my own history, as a stamp-collecting kid, I think that ‘community of coal and steel’ at least was a more straightforward indication of what attempts at European integration since World War II have been about.

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12 comments
  1. onesis said:

    This really is a fascinating perspective because you are writing as an outsider, even though, when you (and we all do this as well) go to buy goods, we are an insider. So we all can be an insider to the practice of economics but an outsider to the theory. You describe being bored with economic theory, and you also say that underlying this sense of alienation from the theory, is a sense that the theory does not connect with historical and cultural reality.

    Maybe one doesn’t need to know much theory at all, just the minimum. We do know that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and if a minimal economic theory explains anything, it should explain that! On the one hand are countries that mainly produce iron and steel and similar products (hard goods) and on the other hands are countries that mainly produce culture (soft goods). Some of the culture is embodied in icons, which may become tourist attractions, but this generates a much smaller amount of wealth than hard goods. On top of that tourists get tired of waiting in queues to see icons, and so the culture-based countries get poorer still. Those countries that care little for culture, simply amass wealth based on consumer demand for hard goods that only their hi-tech industries can provide.

    On this account the rich/poor divide is between technology and culture. That is my minimalist economic theory for what it is worth. It underpins a determination that I have that even if I were to become very poor indeed, I would not stop trying to use cultural means to communicate ideas. I think that people who are rich in hard goods and poor in culture, are worse off than those who are poor in hard goods and rich in culture.

    If we need to become more sophisticated than this, I may end up lagging behind.

  2. Secular Vegan said:

    The European Economic Community was a trading bloc, the European Union is a political union. Neither is Europe. Americans have difficulty understanding this because they see everything from their own frame of reference. ‘American’ in the true sense of the word should refer to all the nations on the continental land mass, not just the USA.

    As for European Monetary Union, Greg Palast’s ‘Armed Madhouse’, pp 160-2 explains it. Oh and we English ‘Eurosceptics’ have been correct all along, we knew it couldn’t work. Thankfully we still have our own currency. Here is an Englishman (of French Huguenot ancestry) descent telling it like it is:

    • onesis said:

      This youtube clip was worth watching, and it is a political analysis/response, based on an assumption of deep level animosities between north and south in Europe. Maybe like it is/was between north and south of north America? In Australia where I live there is rivalry between north and south and they play rugby league to sort it out. But what is this north south divide anyway? How far north or south do you have to go to get over it? Are the north and south poles at enmity with each other? It is all a bit ridiculous, if put in geographical terms.

      Or is it that the global capitalist economy has to engineer political crises in order to operate at all? Why would that be? I could only propose a simplistic answer, so maybe I shouldn’t even try. But here is one suggestion. In order to get consumers spending in the volumes that makes capitalists rich, they have to be put into a condition of high anxiety, so that “retail therapy” becomes a way of life. Think of two different forms of life.

      In one form of life people go to shopping malls, eat fast food, walk up and down isles laden with objects all brightly packaged and designed to catch their attention, and return home laden with such objects, until finally their garages are full of discarded objects, and the rubbish tips of the planet are clogged and overflowing with debris.

      In another form of life older citizens wander down to the marketplace about mid morning to drink coffee, play chess or backgammon, yarn about the world, discuss petty rivalries such as football games, talk about the grand kids, and then wander back home mid afternoon to have a glass of vino and read a book while listening to Bach.

      • Secular Vegan said:

        It is deeper than any difference between the northern and southern states of the USA or Australia; and it is not as Farage says merely between ‘north’ and ‘south’ of Europe. These differences are between long-established nations with considerably different cultural values. The electorates of these nations were not consulted about monetary union, it was foisted upon them; in doing so they lost their economic independence with their respective governments being unable to control the money supply or the central bank lending rate. The massive boom and bust that Spain and Ireland have each experienced have been a consequence of this.

      • onesis said:

        Yes, thank you sir, my first paragraph was inappropriately ironical, and far too flippant about such serious matters. I hope you will forgive me.

        As to the different cultural values in Europe, the problem as I see it, is that different cultural values occur wherever you happen to be. Some people look out for their own personal or family wealth, others look for social or cultural interactions of an aesthetic or differently spiritual kind. So even if there was a consultation maybe nothing would change? Maybe hard core economics would rule anyway? I do not know of course. All I know is that in my own country cultural issues always play second fiddle to economic ones. And so the poor (particularly Aboriginals) get poorer, no matter how much or little is spent on welfare, because essentially they are not interested in economics, or even in welfare. And if you aren’t interested you don’t get education or jobs to suit.

        My point is this. None of us voted for modernity. But in it came and swept away the old ways of being, the communal ways that were inefficient economically. Now we have had to start to think in terms of a new way, postmodernity, if we want to discover better cultural values and try to make them suited to the changed conditions.

        So philosophers like Angela are asking the deeper questions that do not have political answers, such as given on the youtube clip. I see it as a question of how cultural values can continue even under conditions of great economic hardship.

      • Secular Vegan said:

        What I am getting at is that European national identities are far older than those of the USA and Australia. To put it bluntly you can’t turn Greeks into Germans, or vice versa; but it is more than that, it is not just those two nationalities, it is all the others all being lumped together with a common currency and central bank – and being pushed into a political union – that none of them voted for. Being on friendly trading terms with one’s neighbours shouldn’t mean having to get betrothed to them without consent.

  3. ‘None of us voted for modernity’ – that is a sentence which I will return to in my mind and ponder. It reminds us of the contingent course of historical processes. And then we have to deal with them. But still, many individuals actively oppose or defend changes like these when they happen.

  4. onesis said:

    “European national identities are far older than those of the USA and Australia.”

    …”all being lumped together”…

    Australian Aboriginals lived as many nations occupying a continent for around 80,000 years with friendly trading relations extending the length and breadth of the country. When European settlement occurred after 1788, there was a genocide that lasted 150 years at least, and the survivors were lumped together, and placed in holding camps that are now known euphemistically as communities. One such community is Palm island off the coast of Queensland where many different peoples were assembled and expected to get along. It became infamous for its violence, and notoriously there has been incidents in the past decade or so of police violence, including murder, in the name of upholding law and order.

    So I wouldn’t accept an argument based on special pleading for Europe. The name of the game of politics is colonisation, and we have all been part of it, one way or another.

    • Secular Vegan said:

      There is no ‘special pleading’ for Europe. There is in fact a very simple answer to the Eurozone ‘crisis’ and that is to demerge the ‘Euro’ back into national currencies, with all savings and debts being converted accordingly. (So instead of Greece owing 320 million euros or whatever the sum is it would owe 320 million drachma).

      This means that the creditors would have to accept payment in that devalued currency, which is better than nothing at all. It means that savers would lose out but they could convert their savings in advance of demerger to another currency and then change it back again when the new currency stablises.

      The 18th/19th century ‘colonisation’ of Australia argument is irrelevant; it has no bearing on the creation of a centralised European superstate of more than five hundred million people in the late 20th/early 21st century.

      Oh and I have already said, we Britons still have our own currency, as do the Danes and the Swedes, so we all have an easy exit mechanism from the EU. The Norwegians never gave up their sovereignty in the first place.

  5. onesis said:

    Ah, yes, the numbers game…

    500 million Europeans.

    Beats 80,000 years of accumulated human wisdom wiped out by morons.

    • Secular Vegan said:

      … which is clearly of relevance to European Monetary union, a project started in 1992.

  6. onesis said:

    What I’m trying to say, without wiping out these very important local perspectives, is that underpinning the very recent European monetary union, is a much longer history of Europeans colonising each other and indigenous peoples. So my point is that culturally oriented Greece, a country that is very important in our intellectual history, shares some distinct similarities with traditional Aboriginal culture. Both are worthy of being preserved and not reduced to a cost/benefit analysis, that eliminates differences and renders everyone as part of the same technocratic worldview.

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