Democracy, technocrats, and the EU

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant contributor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.

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45 Responses

  1. MFarmer says:

    It appears to me that the Greek people, like the people of many other nations, got the interventionist government they wanted which could give them the goodies they wanted. The failure to limit government power and what goodies can legitimately, and realistically, be provided caught up with the Greeks and now the government is dependent on the help of Germany, which now calls the shots. This seems to be the result of too much unlimited democracy, not the lack of democracy. Has there been a strong limited government movement in Greece which has been repressed?Report

    • Chris in reply to MFarmer says:

      Strangely, Greece’s welfare state is smaller, relatively, than most other western European nations. It seems instead that the Greeks got a government that tailored to their super-rich, allowing them to, among other things, get away with massive amounts of tax evasion, and it’s now coming back to bite them in the ass.


      • MFarmer in reply to Chris says:

        No, relatively it’s about the same as the rest of Europe, 27% of government expenditures, with 90% of that going to pensions. I said Greece faces the same problem as other nations spending so much on government interventions in the economy. Greece’s system is particularly flawed and favors the self-employed. But my point is that they have so many unproductive workers on the government payroll, it’s not as simple as looking at the size of the welfare state, all of Europe and America are too high, and each will hit their own wall.. Greece is not creating enough new wealth — their problem is not low taxe revenues.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    When the Greeks (both elite and rank&file) start paying their taxes, I’ll have more sympathy for the “Poor Ol’ Sovereign Democractic Citizens vs the  Big Bad Market”.  The Greeks could have also used their democracy to state a preference for not joining the Eurozone 10 years ago.  (I’ll blame the lying to get into the Euro on the elites, though)

    The Greeks are perfectly free to go their own way.  They are perfectly free to default and go cold turkey (so to speak), to get out of the cycle of debt and debt maintenance.Report

  3. James K says:

    I pretty much agree with Kolohe.  The reason the debt markets and ratings agencies have so much power over Greece is that the Greek people demanded government services without accepting commensurate taxes.  The reason the EU officials have so much power over Greece is that the Greek people voted themselves into a fiscal crisis and are now begging for help.

    Democracy got Greece into this mess, and I don’t see that there’s a democratic way out of it.Report

    • North in reply to James K says:

      Well there are several. The Greeks could vote to leave the monetary union (and suffer for it) or they could vote to enact heavy austerity and tax regimes that are not easily evaded (and suffer for that instead). Or, they could vote to keep the monetary union but refuse to accept the austerity and less evadable taxes required and thus empower technocrats by default. They appear to be embracing option C.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to North says:

        If you don’t find a doctor who will prescribe you pain meds, you just go to another doctor?

        I think Greece might be out of doctors.Report

        • North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          At some point, however, the underlying cause of your pain lays you out cold on a street or other public place whereupon people without your democratic consent will cart you off to a hospital where they will endevor to treat the underlying issue.Report

      • James K in reply to North says:

        By “democratic solution” I mean a solution that is workable taking voter preferences as given.  In my estimation this rules out options A and B.  And option C is really a technocratic solution, not a democratic one.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to North says:

        I fail to see how there’s anything they can do that avoids some period of austerity and higher taxes.  If they pursue either A or C, no one is going to lend them the money they’ve been using for current expenses.  Granted that if they choose A, they could simply print drachmas (or whatever), but the resulting devaluation relative to other currencies makes imported energy enormously more expensive, producing at least the austerity part, if not the taxes.Report

  4. Michael Drew says:

    It’s pretty easy to say that something is “quintessential” Thing X, when “Thing X” is a term with an at-best contested meaning that you yourself happen to be prepared to apply to the thing that you believe is quintessentially Thing X, since you know there’s no one who can authoritatively challenge that assertion (given that the definition is unsettled), and anyone who does will be jumping down a semantic rabbit hole in which there will be no clarity to be found.  It could equally be that a case in which the only workable solution is a neoliberal solution (whatever that might mean) that requires democratically elected governments to defer to it despite the will of their electorates is not “quintessentially” anything, but rather an extreme case in which whatever works is what has to be implemented, which shouldn’t be seen as typical or ideal in any particular ideological or policy viewpoint.  But then, who can say?Report

  5. James Hanley says:

    This whole mess is quintessential neoliberalism. Take Greece. Here you have a cadre of unaccountable, unelected technocrats and other distant European leaders dictating the fiscal policies of a sovereign nation. The people of that nation have repeatedly risen up in opposition, to little avail.

    I think this is fundamentally wrong.  The “whole mess” is a consequence of, as others above have said, people democratically demanding more benefits than they’re willing to pay for..  That’s not neoliberalism, but populism.

    Essentially they kept trying to charge future generations for current benefits, and are angry that now they’re going to have to pay for their current benefits instead of foisting the cost on their grandchildren.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

      I think this is fundamentally wrong.  The “whole mess” is a consequence of, as others above have said, people democratically demanding more benefits than they’re willing to pay for.

      If only they’d behaved responsibly, say by starting two wars while cutting taxes, then we’d have no need to lecture them about responsibility.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        What was the tax policy that followed the two wars that Europe started?Report

      • James K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Oh, the US government is also being irresponsible, just not as irresponsible as Greece so it will be longer before the US hits the point Greece has reached.  Only when it does there won’t be a bailout because no one has the kind money you need to bail out the US.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I’m not sure how to take that, Mike.  If you’re just riffing off my comment and mocking American democratic policies, I’m with you.  If you’re thinking I was making any suggestion that U.S. policies were better, I can only note that starting multiple wars while cutting taxes isn’t at all well characterized as neoliberal.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

          I’m making the point (which you’re probably getting tired of) that the budget problems in the US don’t stem from hoi  polloi voting themselves benefits, but from neocon recklessness and the complete divorce between revenue and expenditures that’s the legacy of the Reagan administration.Report

          • Mike,

            I half agree with you.  The U.S.’s budget problems are only partially, and that the smaller part I think, caused by generous social spending because the U.S. is stingier on those programs than a Greece has been.  The larger part of the problem has been excessively high military spending and an unwillingness to set taxes at rates that cover our spending.

            But I don’t fully agree for two reasons.  One is simply that this says nothing about Greece’s case, and that is what I was responding to.  Neoliberalism did not cause Greece’s problems.  Second, it’s misleading to suggest that the taxing/spending policies of the U.S. government aren’t in fact supported by large elements of the hoi polloi.  That is to say, it’s a mistake to think that our problems haven’t been democratically inflicted just as Greece’s have.  It’s just that our differing political culture led to a different set of unsustainable taxing and spending policies.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

              Second, it’s misleading to suggest that the taxing/spending policies of the U.S. government aren’t in fact supported by large elements of the hoi polloi.  

              True enough.  The combination of

              • Tax cuts always raise revenue
              • Taxation is theft and progressive taxation is genocide
              • The rich are different from you and me — they’re job creators
              has a lot to answer for.


    • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

      The “whole mess” is a consequence of, as others above have said, people democratically demanding more benefits than they’re willing to pay for.. 

      Given Greece’s unwillingness to collects taxes, I’m not sure the lack of funding for social programs can be pinned on poor people demanding too much. I think focusing on the behavior of a different class might lead to a better answer.Report

  6. Murali says:

    Nice post shawn! And you’re right that democracy isnt an end in itself. But if that is the case, then the mere fact that neoliberal policies often go against the “will of the people” does not count against it.

    And as the above commenters have said, the current greek crisis is brought about entirely (or at least primarily) because the greek populace demanded lots of social services but refused to pay he taxes necessary to finance it. This would have created problems with or without Greece jooining the EU. their lack of control over monetary policy just closed off some of the ways in which Greece could have pushed the problem further down the road.

    I also notice you are doing two things. You are conflating neoliberalism’s technocratic bent with the eurozone’s partial loss of sovereignty. Would you have as much an objection if the same policies were advocated by local technocrats?

    PS. My first post has some things to say on this.Report

  7. Roger says:

    We need a new, real world Marvel superhero.


    or Progresso Man!

    He could manage all the handouts, privileges, rents and subsidies in a fair and enlightened matter. He’d be the perfect blend of Superman, Robin Hood and Obama — but with a French accent. I get excited just thinking about it.


  8. George T says:

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.” – Alexis de Tocqueville


  9. MFarmer says:

    Raising taxes would have stalled the collapse, but the government system Greece created which suppressed wealth creation made collapse inevitable. They could raise taxes now, and it wouldn’t help that much. Greece needs a free, innovative, business-friendly, vibrant economy which creates new wealth. Then if they all decide they want a rational safety net, they could afford it, but what they created set collapse in motion. If they default, Germany and everyone else invested in this system will deserve the loss.Report

  10. Creon Critic says:

    The Presidents of the European Council, European Commission, and European Central Bank are not dictators issuing edicts from on high. They are indirectly accountable to the peoples of Europe, including the Greeks. Having agreed to the European project of pooling sovereignty, the Greek people have made a commitment to follow the rules of the organizations of which they are members – a project with both intergovernmental and supranational features. A project that at multiple points in time, in the past and in the future, requires democratic institutions’ assent. Indeed there is no path for the EU to proceed without democratic input at multiple levels (for instance, the European Parliament has become increasingly powerful in successive treaties). Thus “unaccountable” is inapt. Also, to call the EU supporters uncommitted to democracy is to ignore quite a few treaty ratifications over several decades, Lisbon being one.

    If the EU or the eurozone apparatus conduct themselves in a manner wildly at variance with Greeks’ desires, they are free to denounce the Lisbon Treaty and/or withdraw from the eurozone. That would be an exercise of sovereignty. Having agreed to be part of the club, the Greeks may withdraw if they do not like the terms. But they may not simultaneously be members of the club and dictate to other club members new exceptionally favorable rules tilted towards themselves; lend us money on favorable terms, pay off our debts, finance our unsustainable fiscal position, these are all demands Greece is not empowered to make. The euro-crisis has demonstrated that this is a (protracted) negotiation and all sides (debtors, creditors, treasuries) have leverage.

    The fact is that the Greek people have a mix of desires that European and Greek institutions try to reconcile into a coherent policy. You mention polling on the austerity measures running against, but there is also polling on membership in the eurozone running in favor – 70% wanting to stay in the euro (Economist). Altogether, the history of the EU, the requirements for democratic input, and the various (sometimes irreconcilable) desires of the Greek people do not align with the picture painted of unaccountable technocrats run amuck trampling the demos.Report

  11. BlaiseP says:

    Sovereignty only goes so far. Technocrats and bankers have always had the final say. King John and the barons worked out their own deal, resulting the Magna Carta, not because those barons had any interest in democracy, though that’s how it’s taught these days. King John needed money to pay the ransom for Richard the Lionhearted and to finance his wars in France. But the barons needed King John, too. Without his unifying authority, England would descend into civil war. The farther the barons, especially Fitzwalter pushed King John, the hotter that civil war became.

    King John died a few months later and the Magna Carta became a historical curiosity. Elites we will always have with us: the monarchy returned to absolutism and the barons continued to demand (and get) various preferments. The merchants became bankers and rose to power, holding sway over kings and nations. The Medici bankers followed the Pope around to collect his taxes and put a tenth of every collection into their own pockets. The Medici didn’t loan to royalty, knowing those debts could be stricken out by royal decree. The Bardi and Perucchi loaned to royalty and went bankrupt.

    I’m not sure we can blame Greece’s problems on neoliberalism. The EU was stupidly predicated on two mutually exclusive concepts: national sovereignty and confederated economies. Here in the USA, the various states play beggar-thy-neighbor attempting to lure business from other states with tax abatement and other goodies. Some states receive more from the federal government then they put into the common pot and other states pay more.   While times were good, the poorer citizens of the EU went to the more-prosperous states to do the plumbing and the gardening and the house cleaning.   It was all a mirage, an ignis fatuus.   The good times could never last.

    The EU was based on wishful thinking. As long as some countries were able to foot the bill and make the loans, others were well-content things should always remain that way. Like the greedy bankers of Florence who loaned to royalty and came to ruin thereby, the banks and trading houses of our day have extended vast amounts of credit to government where they might have been better served to follow the example set by the Medici, who never did. Now the EU must foot the bill for their profligate neighbors or their whole silly scheme will fall to ruin.

    To survive, the nations of the EU must accept reductions of sovereignty, electing financial overlords to govern and tax them all. There is no other option. Imposing crushing privations on the weaker nations will not solve their problems. A new Medici class may arise in Europe but I doubt it. There is no Pope or King or class of barons strong enough to hold the mess together.Report

    • Franz Schubert in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Blaise, allow me sir, to change from previous post, ill-tempered to well-tempered. Um Himmels Villen! And here is part the Art of the Fugue played by the inestimable, once in a hundred years comet, Glenn Gould. I was so smitten by the ’55 recording of the Goldbergs that at age 14 I stole a car and drove it to his house in Toronto–a long story short, I ended up in jail, and then was expelled from school. I just wanted to see the visage and hear the voice of God. Doesn’t every 14 year-old?

      By the way, this IS a true story.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

      King John needed money to pay the ransom for Richard the Lionhearted

      The ransom was paid in 1194.  John did not become king until 1199, and the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Moreover, the ransom was raised by Richard and John’s mother Katharine Hepburn Eleanor of Aquitaine, while John was intriguing with Phillip of France to keep Richard imprisoned.Report

  12. Stillwater says:

    Before I read comments or comment myself I just want to say this is a hell of a post Shawn. Good work!Report