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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.

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cover page of the book

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