You never go back, not exactly

Steven Lukes in conversation with Adam Puchejda · 1 January 2016
You can stop going forward, but “reverse gear” does not exist in political history. Nation-states are probably more effective than the European framework, being much better equipped when it comes to building the welfare state. But in terms of human rights, for example, or worker-friendly ideas, Europe has been always extremely effective. European laws and institutions can have a restraining influence on the development of particularist political practices. This, I believe, is important and a…

Adam Puchejda: We are going through a number of different crises: the refugee crisis, terrorism, austerity budgets, eurozone problems and many more. Who has the power to solve these? The EU, nation-states, the markets themselves?

Steven Lukes: To be honest, I don’t know. Right now, we are looking at problems that seem insoluble and made worse by confusion. Just to talk about immediate politics, it is the confusion between the immigrant issue and solving the violence of terrorists. The fact that those two issues have got totally confused makes solving them even more difficult. But you have to start breaking it down. And I think that both the states and the markets can do lots of good things. Firstly, states can be far more important than the neoliberal orthodoxy has made us think. States are not a problem. Second, markets can actually solve some of the problems too; they have all kinds of positive consequences.

AP: But it seems that (despite the crisis of 2008) the markets are doing quite well, while democratic states are, on the contrary, doing worse and worse each year. People are disillusioned with politics, they either refuse to participate in political processes at all, or vote for radically populist parties.

SL: They do. In different places, in the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia and the latest in France. Yes, it is all getting more and more difficult. A regime that I think of as the best, in terms of progressive principles, is a welfare state with state-centered redistributive politics reducing poverty and moving towards equality in a liberal framework. And today this ideal is receding. For sure, there are still places in which it works, e.g. Canada, Sweden or Denmark. But, generally speaking, it is more and more difficult, and not least because that kind of social-democratic welfare regime does seem to thrive best under conditions of relative cultural and other kinds of homogeneity. There is no doubt that the refugee crisis and just generally migration makes that more difficult.

AP: For many Europeans, the refugee crisis and right-wing populist parties taking power have put the European Union under an enormous strain, one it may not survive.

SL: The EU is under an enormous strain and everything is possible. The Schengen agreement is under serious threat and the eurozone also. There is an important debate between Jürgen Habermas and Wolfgang Streeck about whether we can think of Europe as the appropriate political context for a welfare regime. In other words, should we think of Europe as a potentially future Scandinavia, so to speak, as the way in which welfare politics and redistribution, regulation of the market can occur within it. Streeck, contrary to Habermas, thinks that it is impossible. What is more, he says that Europe based on the shared platform of the euro is doomed, that it can’t work. Habermas is much more optimistic.

AP: So let’s take the pessimistic stand and suppose that the Schengen Zone is dissolved, the European Commission and European Council are dismantled, and member states of the EU decide that the European project was a bad idea and we have to go back to traditional nation-states – that still doesn’t change anything when it comes to refugees, migrants, terrorists and global markets.

SL: Of course, it is not going to solve anything. But there is more to that, because as a matter of fact, you never go back, not exactly. You can stop going forward, but reverse gear does not exist in political history. Nation-states are probably more effective than the European framework. They are much better equipped when it comes to building the welfare state. But in other ways, in terms of human rights for example, or worker-friendly ideas, Europe has been always extremely valuable. European laws and institutions can have a restraining influence on the development of particularist political practices. This, I believe, is important and a message to right-wing politicians who are skeptical toward the EU.

AP: Those same politicians often say that they represent the idea of a strong, sovereign nation-state vs. the weak, elitist and bureaucratic European Union. Do you think that this weak sovereignty of EU member states is part of the present crisis?

SL: I think we need to disaggregate the idea of sovereignty and therefore not think that there is simply the choice between ‘weak sovereignty’ and ‘strong nation-states.’ Some state functions have already been pooled upwards to Europe, notably in the judicial arena. Others have been decentralized downwards to regions and cities. Marine Le Pen, David Cameron and conservative eurosceptics in the UK, and now the Polish governing party, do not like this process, but I think of it as both inevitable and desirable.

AP: Many voters do not think so and are choosing the aforementioned right-wing populist parties. Is the EU becoming less and less ‘European’ and more and more ‘national’?

SL: We are at a moment of crisis right now and things look terrible, but I think it could be that they are not as terrible as they seem. Recent events, for example the terrorist attacks in Paris and the emotions they have stirred up, have made it more difficult to think rationally about it. Before the Paris attacks I think it was reasonable to say: Europe, as an entity of 330 million people with enough organization and good will, can certainly deal with the refugee crisis. Whether you can say it now, after a few weeks, I’m not sure.

AP: So what happened? Terrorist attacks are not something new in Europe.

SL: They have coincided with the rapidly increasing inflow of refugees and a widening sense of precariousness and insecurity. In particular, people wonder whether it is feasible to cope with the refugee crisis.

AP: In the US, you don’t have the refugee crisis, and yet Donald Trump says that Muslims should be banned from entering the country. And people like it!

SL: Trump has been extraordinarily effective, so far, tapping into people’s multiple anxieties and the same sense of precariousness and insecurity, heightened by terrorist attacks in Europe and now in the US. He expresses and generates fear of supposedly dangerous communities with recognizable identities – first it was Mexicans, now Muslims. It is not that people ‘like’ it; many people – especially the so-called ‘low information voters’ and mainly less advantaged white males – are susceptible to this fear-mongering, offering simple solutions and the semblance of toughness, along with contempt for the established political elites. It is simplistic populist talk, laced with bravado and overwhelming self-assurance.

AP: Maybe people are choosing simple solutions because we have no clear idea of what our vision of Europe or the Western world in general should be?

SL: We can here revisit that debate between Habermas and Streeck. Perhaps at the root of this is the question of political economy. Habermas has a vision of a Europe of the future which involves some kind of federalist, integrative movement, a convergence of states toward an ideal condition of shared collective solidarity. There are also other aspects of it which are very idealistic and admirable, such as the idea of the public sphere or the idea of democratic will formation, but the question is: how attainable is all that? I think it is a great ideal, but it seems to me that Habermas hasn’t got the answer to that question. He doesn’t have an account of what Marxists used to call the transition – how we get from here to there.

AP: That is true, we do not know how to get from here to there, and our time is running out. In recent regional elections in France Marine Le Pen strengthened her position and now is the top contender for the presidency in 2017.

SL: We can heave a sigh of relief that the French voters resisted her party’s advance in the second round of regional elections, but we should beware that the advance, though slowed, continues. People can be readily mobilized by fear. And that what’s been happening in France. The situation can be very volatile and dangerous. Immediately after the Paris attacks everyone behaved very decently, admirably, there was lots of human solidarity. Just like after 9/11, people were very concerned for their fellow citizens, the next day they assembled, very peacefully, expressed mourning and grief. But a few hours later you get the speech from Hollande declaring war without mercy and then the implementation of emergency laws that threaten civil liberties. Hollande did stress that the attacks involved Frenchmen killing Frenchmen, but this useful message was drowned by the rest, which was all about mobilizing people for war. And this reminded me of another moment, when a weak president postured and became strong by declaring war. Not just war but crusade. It was George W. Bush in 2001. This is a moment when people, the passive and unconcerned citizenry, gets mobilized by rhetoric and emotions. At moments like these what politicians do and say is extremely important, but this is the same moment they so often make all kinds of mistakes.

AP: But this is not very surprising, especially taking into account our political experiences, is it? Don’t you think that this explanation is only part of the problem? Pragmatic politics does not work anymore and we do not have any clear vision of new politics.

SL: I don’t think you should think of it as just those two alternatives. And I am not against visions either. But I think that if your goal is to secure, let’s say, a social democratic model of politics, you have to figure out how to get there. But sometimes the situation in the world is just too difficult and we cannot improve it significantly in the short term. Then it is crucial to preserve liberties and avoid demagogy, populism and fear-mongering. And one should also look at things from a perspective. There are places in the world where it is definitely better to live than in other places.

AP: I wouldn’t call this optimism.

SL: I am not in an optimistic mood. I think that maybe we should conclude with a joke. What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist says “You know; things could not be worse.” And an optimist says “Yes, they could.”

AP: Was Professor Caritat an optimist at the end of his journey?

SL: He was trying, continually trying. He was actually looking for a better place and that’s what we’ve got to go on doing.