The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.
But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.
Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012),
The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.
Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone– Greece and Ireland. Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.
Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised – and instead stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.
The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.
However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.
For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.
But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?
The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).
I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.
Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China. But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability
It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers. In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945. The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.
And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming - surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? - to be born
At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe. At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.
At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times. ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.
The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.
(The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).
Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.
Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.
Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?
By evening I have moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea – for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas. Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this second event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear - ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )
I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.