Democracy, technocrats, and the EU
The European debt crisis is still threatening to engulf the world. But have no fear, the technocrats are here!
The question now, in both Italy and Greece, is whether the technocrats can succeed where elected leaders failed — whether pressure from the European Union backed by the whip of the financial markets will be enough to dislodge the entrenched cultures of political patronage that experts largely blame for the slow growth and financial crises that plague both countries.
Some said there was cause for optimism. “First, the mere fact that they have been asked in such difficult circumstances means that they have a mandate,” said Iain Begg, an expert on the European monetary union at the London School of Economics. “Granted, it’s not a democratic one, but it flows from disaffection with the bickering political class.”
The elites recognize their means are inimical to democracy. They simply don’t care. 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. A large chunk of the electorate has registered its opposition to austerity in opinion polls. The embattled prime minister cynically proposes a public referendum, and international leaders and financial markets blanch. His (realpolitik) ends satisfied—the opposition has assented to the debt deal—the prime minister then agrees to step aside for an elite technocrat ostensibly “above politics.”
Whatever the European Union’s economic merits, the debt crisis should disabuse anyone of the notion that most supporters are committed to democracy. Part of this, to be sure, is inherent in a system with a unified monetary policy and disparate fiscal policy. If once latent or covert, though, the antidemocratic proclivities of the European elite have now been catapulted to the fore. The tension at the heart of democratic capitalism has also been laid bare, as Wolfgang Steeck noted in a flawed but insightful essay:
As we now read almost every day in the papers, ‘the markets’ have begun to dictate in unprecedented ways what presumably sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens and what they must refuse them. The same Manhattan-based ratings agencies that were instrumental in bringing about the disaster of the global money industry are now threatening to downgrade the bonds of states that accepted a previously unimaginable level of new debt to rescue that industry and the capitalist economy as a whole… In countries like Greece and Ireland, anything resembling democracy will be effectively suspended for many years; in order to behave ‘responsibly’, as defined by international markets and institutions, national governments will have to impose strict austerity, at the price of becoming increasingly unresponsive to their citizens.
Simultaneously admonished by financial markets and elites to get in line or have their democratic authority circumvented, citizen agency is increasingly an anachronism, an obsolesence present in a previous world dominated by nation states—not the new, flat world of multinational corporations and their elite enablers. Those in the developing world have been at the receiving end of this cudgel for years, of course. Structural adjustment was the euphemism, authoritarian imposition the means: Sell off state assets, cut the social safety net, and slash subsidies to the poor.
All of this relates to our recent discussions on democracy, in which most League denizens expressed a “pragmatic” commitment to democracy (if that): Popular rule is desirable insofar as it legitimates the coercion necessary in a modern, heterogeneous society. Romanticizing democracy is dangerous because it blinds one to its many pitfalls. Democracy isn’t an end in itself.
These misgivings are legitimate— democracy isn’t always a leavening force. Unchecked by institutional rules or a pervasive “constitutional conscience,” democracy can be used to eviscerate individual rights and, ultimately, itself. Opponents of popular rule overstate their case, though. The current threat to freedom isn’t democratic overreach, but elite hubris. Average Greeks have little control over their country’s fiscal and economic future. The forces and decisions that shape their lives are elusive and unaccountable.
There is freedom in delegation. But not on the wholesale scale the Greeks and others are experiencing.