Optimistic Europhilia

Ulrich Beck, German Europe

Polity, 120pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745669526

reviewed by Jamie Mackay

The title of Ulrich Beck’s latest sociological tract is a raw provocation. At once a diagnosis, a description, a prediction and a challenge, the highly charged image succinctly distils a media zeitgeist debated daily among the plethora of Europe’s increasingly differentiated dinner party sects. It is self-consciously paradoxical, unashamedly emotive and charged with a bluntness that was always going to bring colour to the cheeks of certain light-footed liberal commentators who have consistently failed to confront the cultural implications of Europe’s secular crisis. There is a sense of transgression in its daring to attribute a name to a spectre that haunts the dreams of the continent’s south and is revered as a moral deity in the north. Through its clever evocation of Europe’s plurality, and the threat austerity politics poses to this, it is a powerful testimony to the continuing significance of nationhood in a world of networked power and resistance.

In contrast to this loaded frame, however, the arguments of this short collection of essays attempt something more precise and modest: to expose in clear language the various covert narratives by which ‘expectations of catastrophe determine public perceptions’ while sketching the skeleton structure of an alternative based in hope, participation and the construction of new institutions. Germany is indeed privileged, dissected as a central financial and social power, but the parameters of Beck’s discussion are far broader than the operation of the nation’s political class. This is a book dedicated to everyday Europe-builders: Erasmus students, migrant workers and nomadic professionals. It is also a book dedicated to a generation tuned-in to livestreams of ‘spontaneous’ experiments in direct democracy and who are increasingly aware of the need to frame their arguments in terms of minds and bodies but also of political economy. As Beck summarises, in an attempt to unite these disparate groups: ‘in future Europe will contain many Europes. One of these is the Europe from below, the Europe of ordinary citizens who may not even know (or want to know) that they are citizens of Europe.’ If a lack of knowledge, or as he later phrases it “consciousness”, is holding back the political realisation of a new project, then one of the book’s primary goals is to argue for the political necessity of this ‘shared morality’ as a framework for building new institutions to re-shape globalisation.

Over the course of three essays Beck presents a topography of this divided Europe, with the first discussing ‘values’ of democracy and freedom, the second Germany’s expression of hegemony, and finally, the shape resistance might take. This dialectical movement brings with it certain conditions under which to interpret the book’s title, a structure that, while anxiously covering its debt to Marx, allows Beck to assert clearly that the problem of German ‘crisis politics’ is not, in fact, tied to Germany per se but to the structure of capitalism itself. As he clarifies: ‘it would be a crass misunderstanding to believe that what we are seeing is German arrogance or German power lust.’ His counter-thesis focuses instead on the government’s manipulation of data after the nation’s now famous success of the 2010 recovery; its endorsement of new pedagogic practices grounded in ‘hard evidence’ and the exporting of what is uncritically presented by a large section of the media and political classes as a ‘universal’ template of crisis management. In this sense, and framed as a strict opposition to the validity of these discourses, the book’s central proposition gradually unveils itself: ‘not only is Europe on its way to becoming German; the truth – that is, the truth of austerity politics – is on its way to becoming German as well.’

This broad argument is supported by several attempts at penetrating the wall of jargon behind which the realities of the German-driven austerity programme remain. While the world of economics presents itself in a self-referential labyrinth of complex financial instruments, Beck’s language is stark and meticulous in revealing ‘hidden’ chains of causality: ‘economic downturn leads to reduced tax receipts while ratcheting up the costs of unemployment. That in turn increases the government deficit and leads to demands for even greater cuts which succeed only in intensifying the crisis.’ This attempt to demystify is one of the book’s most admirable characteristics and, without pretensions to do so, should provide an important example of the privileged position sociology occupies in the widespread movement to challenge the language of orthodox economics.

The tone throughout sticks close to this example, though several passages are punctuated by a flagrant, if slightly awkward, contempt for ‘schoolmistress’ Merkel, or, as Beck prefers, Merkiavelli. Yet what seems like a cheap jibe is, in line with the book’s core thesis, developed into a larger demonstration of the logic of crisis politics. For Beck, the process of ‘delayed decision making’ – which for him is Merkel’s principal strategy - is the political form that enables the more visible forms of market domination. As financial capitalism is so unpredictable (and paradoxically so mathematical) it is best not to intervene directly with its processes. Subsequently, discussion must take the form of long, anxious conferences with each individual issue severed from a hermetically sealed power system in which the financial media serves to blackmail opponents of the sacred algorithms. This constant shifting of responsibility, motivated by self-interest and propped up by an unchecked lobbying culture, is taken to represent the paradox of a union where politicians must think of winning elections on home soil over the pressing need for international justice. In this sense, while Europe’s crisis may be partially explained by the de-centered power-relations of globalisation, the tactic of delay demonstrates just how significant the roles of individual leaders and organisations are in reproducing the violence of capitalism’s current configuration.

In combating this cynical careerism, and fuelling his search for a solution, Beck proudly adopts a position of optimistic Europhilia. Throughout, the book’s main argument is framed by an recurring tendency to remind his readers of the many ‘unspoken’ victories of the union: the ‘miracle’ of turning historic enemies into new partners, the overthrowing of dictatorships, its continuing relevance to the populations of many ex-imperial nations as a utopia of liberty and collective wealth. With this in mind, and perhaps in tension with his celebration of the more radical calls for direct control by groups such as the indignados, his proposals for saving the project are presented within a narrative of continuity rather than split. A Europe-wide ministry of finance to control the fact that, in the context of globalised capitalism ‘banks live transnationally but die nationally.’ A banking union, dedicated to tempering the risk market, organized by a coalition of the strongest economies, and which Germany one day choose to lead. Most of all, in order to avoid the possibility that such a measure might become a mere addition to a ‘Lego set’ of one-dimensional institutions, he calls for their birth from a constitutional agreement between Europe’s individual citizens – a new social contract, sourced from the energy of its transnational subjects.

For these zealous ambitions alone, this is a risky book; open to being discarded at source by the architects of the system he opposes, and ridiculed by defenders of the ‘natural’ sovereignty of the nation-state. Its principle value is a determined defiance, an experienced challenge delivered by an old figurehead to a new sociology whose theories, he claims, ‘tend to inquire into the reproduction of the social and political order instead of its transformation.’ In a context of the failure of such departments to influence of university restructuring in Germany and the UK among others, this would itself be noteworthy. Yet Beck’s own suggestions are tempered with a knowing wink as he subtly and seductively invites his readers to experiment beyond the text at hand: ‘risk is always also a political category because it liberates politics from existing rules and institutional shackles.’ The possibility of a European spring is by no means guaranteed and with the Portuguese legal case against austerity, the silent shockwaves of the Cyprian bailout, and the unexpected success of Beppe Grillo’s Eurosceptic populist party in one of the union’s largest economies, the international future may seem far from in our hands. At its best, however, Beck’s rejection of ‘realism’ and cautiously rational celebration of ‘naivety’ marks an important effort to break through the Messianic passiveness of a Europe still waiting for its moment of redemption.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICE, the New Statesman, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.