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Friday, October 12, 2012

EU: Nobel Peace Prize

Today the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union. In order to arrive at this decision, the Committee had to perform three cognitive operations, each of them making their perspective on the world narrower, more prejudiced, more Eurocentric and, looking at the end result, simply plain old cultural-racist.

The Noble Peace Prize Committee had to, first, ignore the fact that the European Union's actions cannot be understood by looking at "Brussels" alone. I feel like a broken record as I keep repeating (as in a paper co-authored with Mahua Sarkar and its various subsequent versions in English, Magyar and Belarusian, not to mention the book to which this page is devoted, as a whole, plus my most recent blog entry below) that the EU is not a self-standing, self-contained and fully "self-made," singular actor but a network entity. Just like you cannot absolve from criminal responsibility the crime boss who sits in his villa in Florida while his minions execute his every command for violence, say, in Chicago, it makes little sense to separate the EU from the points where its laws, decrees and, more broadly, its geopolitical interests, are enforced. Mahua Sarkar and I identified four separate mechanisms through which the EU does this. Among them, the most obvious is the fact that the EU enforces its laws / interests through the activities of its member states. This is really not so difficult to see. "Brussels" per se has no executive apparatus of its own. What it has is a set of contractual relationships to its member states: Becoming a member (actually, to a large degree, even applying for membership) implies, basically, that you have to agree to execute the EU's decisions as your own. This is called, in EU-lingo, the "sharing and pooling of [the member states'] sovereignty." The acquis communautaire--the EU's eighty-thousand-plus-pages-long body of laws and regulations--is designed essentially to determine how this is to be done.

The timing of the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize gives a particularly vicious ring to all this. We are living in times when the domestic law enforcement agencies (i.e., the police forces) of the member states are routinely involved, as I pointed it out in my post a few days ago, in acts of violence against their own fellow citizens because those citizens protest the content of the laws imposed on them due to what is referred to as the "sharing and pooling of sovereignty."

The second is that in order to be able to even think that the EU is a proper recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize you had to look at a very narrow interpretation of European history, observing events exclusively on the inside--specifically, from within (predominantly: continental) western Europe. The justification that the EU's great achievement is pacification of the historical animosities between Germany and France is not only an age-old trope but, as numerous observers have pointed it out, also factually plain wrong. Going with the slightly exaggerated allegory of the mafia boss, the "eternal peace between European powers" argument is equivalent to saying that he deserves a peace medal because he managed to unite two local mafias to terrorize the locals more effectively. This inside-conversation about the EU as "essentially good" is, as Iain Martin describes it, "beyond parody" in another historical sense. In his succinct summary,

Daftest of all is the notion that the EU itself has kept the peace. It was the Allies led by the Americans, the Russians and the British who defeated and disarmed the Germans in 1945. The German people then underwent the most extraordinary reckoning, transforming their country into an essentially pacifist society. The EU had very little to do with it. Throughout that period it was Nato, led by the Americans and British, which kept the peace in Western Europe. The American taxpayer picked up most of the resulting tab, and the British paid a significant part of the bill too.

Right. Of course they didn't do that out of sheer "goodness" either--that's the nature of geopolitics. As a truism (attributed variously to Palmerston, Churchill and de Gaulle) states, "a state has no friends, only interests." In general, I sprout physical symptoms when a notion of essential goodness is inserted into geopolitics.

Third, there is the bewildering practice of personifying organizations. This, to me, is a faint contemporary European echo of the disastrous nineteenth-century series of logical fallacies committed by the United States Supreme Court that eventually gave full legal personhood to corporations (a source of an inordinate amount of suffering and political complications in the U.S. today). In a cognitively analogous manner, states and supra-state organizations have cropped up here and there on the list of Nobel Peace Prize recipients as if they could be attributed intentionality, coherence, morality and dignity in the same way in which individuals can. I find that this fudges the whole idea of the prize. Individuals are not like corporate actors in any way, and vice versa. If the Committee wishes to honor states and supra-state organizations, it should establish a special prize for them, or drop the idea of giving the award to individuals. Otherwise, it runs the risk of the entire enterprise becoming a (tasteless) joke.

Of course, having awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the chief executive of a global superpower with an active "kill list" makes the whole thing not really (or, if you view it that way, far too) serious. The way things look, war is peace, and peace is war, definitely.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

EU "Soft Power": Not So Soft at All

As news of the Spanish or Greek police cracking down on their own citizens protesting against their own governments' monetary policies keep pouring in, I can't help recalling some academic arguments a few years ago. These are, BTW, quite interesting crackdowns: Greek police beat up and apparently, also torture, Greek protesters whose main demand is reinstatement of economic sovereignty to their own government (i.e., that sovereignty which the police swore, ostensibly, to protect).

Mahua Sarkar and I argued 7-8 years ago, and the book develops the argument a few steps further, that the EU should properly be understood as part of a network arrangement for political power. (Chapter 2 in the book actually reconstructs the emergence of this network principle over 5 centuries of global geopolitics.) This implies that much of the "dirty work" of executing the EU's policies is done by other organizations (in this case, the local state). The availability of a set--currently: twenty-seven--fully developed executive apparatuses makes it really easy for the EU to portray itself as a polity without an executive apparatus. For scholars to accept this view, all you need is a little myopia (not looking beyond your nose in "Brussels".)

As a matter of fact, all the talk about "soft power" (especially in those parts of the social sciences that address themselves to the European Union--we can perhaps call them EU-logy) is, essentially, a new form of the "Europe=goodness" argument. In its initial form, that was of course an argument put forth to "prove" the deep "superiority" of 'Europe' in the colonial context--i.e., it was a cultural tool used to justify the political disempowerment and economic oppression of other societies. Today, "soft power" constitutes a breathtakingly imprecise argument that serves a few immediate purposes, e.g., to distinguish the EU from the USA (as if the two didn't operate in tandem everywhere in the world), as well as to reproduce an old European superiority worldview, this time vis-a-vis the "culturally non-democratic," etc. societies outside the Euro-American axis.

That argument is only possible because scholars who pursue it are willing to ignore how essential its network-character is for the EU. The EU is not an actor "without hard power": Its power is in fact quite "hard"--it is just that, technically, there is a one-step network removal between the EU's centers of power in Brussels and the points where that power is used. In other words, "Brussels," by itself, is doing no dirty work per se; the EU's member states (as well as, in other contexts, the US military and the other NATO-member militaries) do it for the political and economic interests congealed in "Brussels." And "Brussels" uses this power quite freely when it comes to issues that really matter.

What are those issues that "really matter"? Survival and well-being of the currency in which substantial investments and savings of the west European capital-owning classes are sunk (hence the crackdowns against the protests in the Mediterranean member states). Survival of capitalism as the militarily protected logic of global economic integration. Prevention of the emergence of even a mildly redistributive mechanism to correct the worst excesses of the breathtaking global inequalities created, under "European" geopolitical leadership, over the last two centuries. And, finally, protection of the economic, political and social space of western Europe from "outsiders," as in the enforcement of the exclusion principles of Schengen.

cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta