What happened was that two of the big shaping forces of western Europe, forces that have been working broadly in tandem for 300 years, clearly fell apart. One force is capitalism; the other democracy. From the Enlightenment onwards, it has been an accepted truth that democracy and capitalism were at the very least compatible with each other. The things that were needed in order for capitalism to develop – the breaking of aristocratic power, the free movement of labour, an open market in ideas, functioning parliaments, independent legal systems, states that could command popular consent and thus underpin stability, taxation to fund mass education and infrastructure – were also conditions for political democracy. They may not have been sufficient conditions, but they were necessary ones.
…. What became so dramatically clear last week was that this compatibility has ended. The leading form of capitalism – the finance capitalism that has expanded so monstrously over the last 30 years – is no longer compatible with democracy in Europe.
And by democracy in this context I mean just the limited, basic form: universal suffrage and sovereign governments. This is a pretty big deal.
Consider the three things that happened in Greece and Ireland last week. Firstly, it was made explicit that the most reckless, irresponsible and ultimately impermissible thing a government could do was to seek the consent of its own people to decisions that would shape their lives. And, indeed, even if it had gone ahead, the Greek referendum would have been largely meaningless. As one Greek MP put it, the question would have been: do you want to take your own life or to be killed? Secondly, there was open and shameless intervention by European leaders (Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy) in the internal affairs of another state. Sarkozy hailed the “courageous and responsible” stance of the main Greek opposition party – in effect a call for the replacement of the elected Greek government.
The third part of this moment of clarity was what happened in Ireland: the payment of a billion dollars to unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders. Apart from its obvious obscenity, the most striking aspect of this was that, for the first time, we had a government performing an action it openly declared to be wrong. Michael Noonan wasn’t handing over these vast sums of cash from a bankrupt nation to vulture capitalist gamblers because he thought it was a good idea. He was doing it because there was a gun to his head. The threat came from the European Central Bank and it was as crude as it was brutal: give the spivs your taxpayers’ money or we’ll bring down your banking system.
Again, as in Greece, even the basic forms of democracy were incompatible with this process. There could not be a Greek referendum because there is no acceptable question that can be answered by a democratic vote. And there could not be a debate in the Irish parliament about the extortion of a billion dollars because there is nothing to be debated. Referendums and parliamentary votes are rituals of public consent. But the question of consent is now not just irrelevant. It is reckless, outrageous, downright scandalous.
…. Europe, and the rest of the western world, is thus at a parting of the ways. We can have the form of rapacious finance capitalism that has become the dominant force in our economies and societies.
Or we can have democracy. But we can’t have both.
And David McWilliams, hardly a left leaning journalist like our Fintan, says some pretty similiar things here …
What is happening in Europe? Greek prime minister Georgios Papandreou was hauled over the coals for suggesting that the Greek people might want to be consulted on their own future. Let’s consider this. Why should a referendum threaten anyone? Indeed, why should democracy threaten anyone? Or maybe the other way to ask this question is: who is threatened by democracy?
Maybe those who are trying to foist something on the population that the population does not want are threatened by democracy.