What Europe’s Elites Don’t Know

When the blind are leading the blind, democracy is the victim.

Slavoj Žižek

Slovenians demonstrate in Ljubljana against political corruption and Prime Minister Janez Janša on January 11. (Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)

In one of his last inter­views before his fall, despot Nico­lae Ceaus­es­cu was asked by a West­ern jour­nal­ist how he jus­ti­fied the fact that Roman­ian cit­i­zens could not trav­el freely abroad, though free­dom of move­ment was guar­an­teed by the con­sti­tu­tion. His answer: True, the con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees the free­dom of move­ment, but it also guar­an­tees the right of the peo­ple to a safe and pros­per­ous home. So we have here a poten­tial con­flict of rights: If Roman­ian cit­i­zens were to be allowed to freely leave the coun­try, the pros­per­i­ty of the home­land would be in dan­ger. One has to make a choice, and, as Ceaus­es­cu saw it, the right to a pros­per­ous and safe home­land enjoys a clear priority.

Slovenia may be a small, marginal country, but the decision of its Constitutional Court is symptomatic of a global tendency toward the limiting of democracy.

It seems that this spir­it of Stal­in­ist sophistry is alive and well in today’s Slove­nia, where, on Dec. 19, 2012, the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court ruled that a pub­lic ref­er­en­dum on pro­posed bad bank” leg­is­la­tion was uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. The idea behind the leg­is­la­tion was to cre­ate a new bank to which the main banks would trans­fer all their bad loans, pre­vent­ing any seri­ous inquiry into who was respon­si­ble for both mak­ing and tak­ing out these bad loans. Then, the gov­ern­ment would bail out the bad bank” (at the tax­pay­ers’ expense). The leg­is­la­tion, which had been debat­ed for months, was far from being accept­ed as sound eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, even by finan­cial spe­cial­ists. The ref­er­en­dum was pro­mot­ed by trade unions opposed to the government’s neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic pol­i­tics, and it received enough sig­na­tures to make it obligatory.

So why pro­hib­it the ref­er­en­dum? After all, in 2011, when Papandreou’s gov­ern­ment in Greece pro­posed a ref­er­en­dum on aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, the Troi­ka — the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) and the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank—pan­icked. But even in Brus­sels no one dared to direct­ly pro­hib­it it.

Accord­ing to the Sloven­ian Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court, the ref­er­en­dum would have caused uncon­sti­tu­tion­al con­se­quences.” How? The court, using log­ic sim­i­lar to Ceausescu’s, con­ced­ed that ref­er­en­dum is a con­sti­tu­tion­al right, but con­clud­ed that the exe­cu­tion of that right in this case would endan­ger oth­er con­sti­tu­tion­al val­ues that should be giv­en pri­or­i­ty in a sit­u­a­tion of severe eco­nom­ic cri­sis: the effi­cient func­tion­ing of the state appa­ra­tus, espe­cial­ly in cre­at­ing con­di­tions for eco­nom­ic growth; and the real­iza­tion of human rights, espe­cial­ly the rights to social secu­ri­ty and free eco­nom­ic ini­tia­tive. In assess­ing the poten­tial con­se­quences of the ref­er­en­dum, the court sim­ply accept­ed as an undis­put­ed fact the rea­son­ing of the inter­na­tion­al finan­cial author­i­ties who were pres­sur­ing Slove­nia to enact more aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. In oth­er words, fail­ing to obey the dic­tates or meet the expec­ta­tions of inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions (or to meet their expec­ta­tions) can lead to polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic cri­sis, and is thus uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Or, to put it blunt­ly: Since meet­ing these dic­tates is the con­di­tion of main­tain­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al order, they have pri­or­i­ty over the con­sti­tu­tion (and eo ipso state sovereignty).

No won­der, then, that the court’s deci­sion shocked many legal spe­cial­ists. France Bučar, a for­mer law pro­fes­sor, long­time dis­si­dent, and one of the fathers of Slovene inde­pen­dence, point­ed out that, fol­low­ing the court’s log­ic in this case, it can pro­hib­it any ref­er­en­dum, since every such act has social con­se­quences. Or, as Bučar put it, With this deci­sion, the con­sti­tu­tion­al judges issued to them­selves a blank check allow­ing them to pro­hib­it any­thing any­one can con­coct. Since when does the [Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court] have the right to assess the state of econ­o­my or bank insti­tu­tions? It can assess only if a cer­tain legal reg­u­la­tion is in accord with the con­sti­tu­tion or not. That’s it!” Some ref­er­en­da are prop­er­ly pro­hib­it­ed by the court — for instance, an open­ly racist ref­er­en­dum. But in such a case there is a direct con­flict between the racist prin­ci­ple pro­mot­ed by the ref­er­en­dum and oth­er arti­cles of the con­sti­tu­tion bar­ring racism. In the Slovene case, the rea­son for pro­hi­bi­tion does not con­cern prin­ci­ples, but (pos­si­ble) prag­mat­ic con­se­quences of an eco­nom­ic measure.

Slove­nia may be a small, mar­gin­al coun­try, but the deci­sion of its Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court is symp­to­matic of a glob­al ten­den­cy toward the lim­it­ing of democ­ra­cy. The idea is that in a com­plex eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion like today’s, the major­i­ty of the peo­ple are not qual­i­fied to make deci­sions — they just want to keep their priv­i­leges intact, igno­rant of the cat­a­stroph­ic con­se­quences that would ensue if their demands were met.

Dis­trust­ing democracy

This line of argu­ment is not new. In a TV inter­view a cou­ple of years ago, the late Ralf Dahren­dorf linked the grow­ing dis­trust of democ­ra­cy to the fact that, after every rev­o­lu­tion­ary change, the road to new pros­per­i­ty must first pass through a val­ley of tears.” In oth­er words, after the break­down of social­ism, the state can­not move direct­ly to the abun­dance of a suc­cess­ful mar­ket econ­o­my: First, the lim­it­ed, but real, social­ist wel­fare and secu­ri­ty sys­tem of the old order must be dis­man­tled — a nec­es­sar­i­ly painful process.

Accord­ing to this rea­son­ing, the same goes for West­ern Europe, where the pas­sage from the post-WWII wel­fare state to the new glob­al econ­o­my involves painful renun­ci­a­tions, includ­ing less eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and less guar­an­teed social care. For Dahren­dorf, the prob­lem is best encap­su­lat­ed by the sim­ple fact that this painful pas­sage through the val­ley of tears” lasts longer than the aver­age peri­od between (demo­c­ra­t­ic) elec­tions, so that the temp­ta­tion is great for peo­ple to resist the dif­fi­cult, but nec­es­sary, changes by elect­ing lead­ers who pledge to for­go them. And when, in the absence of those nec­es­sary struc­tur­al adjust­ments, abun­dance nev­er arrives, the peo­ple blame democ­ra­cy itself.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Dahren­dorf focus­es much less on the result­ing impli­ca­tions: If the major­i­ty resists the need­ed struc­tur­al changes in the econ­o­my, would it not be one of the log­i­cal con­clu­sions that, for a decade or so, an enlight­ened elite should take pow­er, even by non-demo­c­ra­t­ic means, to enforce the nec­es­sary mea­sures and thus lay the foun­da­tions for the tru­ly sta­ble democ­ra­cy? Along these lines, Fareed Zakaria argues that democ­ra­cy can only catch on” once a coun­try is eco­nom­i­cal­ly devel­oped. If a devel­op­ing coun­try is pre­ma­ture­ly democ­ra­tized,” the result is a pop­ulism that ends in eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe and polit­i­cal despo­tism. It’s no won­der that today’s most eco­nom­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful Third World coun­tries (Tai­wan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democ­ra­cy only after a peri­od of author­i­tar­i­an rule. And, fur­ther­more, does this line of think­ing not pro­vide an excel­lent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the author­i­tar­i­an régime in China?

What is new today is that, with the ongo­ing state of cri­sis that began in 2008, this dis­trust of democ­ra­cy, once applied only to Third World or post-Com­mu­nist devel­op­ing coun­tries, is gain­ing ground with­in devel­oped West­ern coun­tries. What was, a decade or two ago, patron­iz­ing advice to oth­ers, now con­cerns our­selves. But what if this dis­trust is jus­ti­fied? What if only experts can save us, along with less-than-full democracy?

The least one can say is that the cri­sis offers sub­stan­tial evi­dence that it is not the peo­ple but these experts who, by and large, don’t know what they are doing. In West­ern Europe, we are effec­tive­ly wit­ness­ing a grow­ing incom­pe­tence of the rul­ing elite. Look at how Europe is deal­ing with the Greek cri­sis: It is putting pres­sure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruin­ing its econ­o­my through imposed aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures and there­by ensur­ing the Greek debt will nev­er be repaid.

At the end of 2012, the IMF released research show­ing that the eco­nom­ic dam­age from aggres­sive aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures may be as much as three times larg­er than pre­vi­ous­ly assumed — there­by can­cel­ing its own advice to apply aus­ter­i­ty in the Euro­zone cri­sis. Now, the IMF admits that forc­ing Greece and oth­er debt-bur­dened coun­tries to reduce their deficits too quick­ly would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive — after hun­dreds of thou­sands of job have already been lost because of such mis­cal­cu­la­tions.”

And there­in resides the true mes­sage of the irra­tional” pop­u­lar protests all around Europe: The pro­test­ers know very well what they don’t know, and they don’t pre­tend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonethe­less true — that those in pow­er are as igno­rant as they. In Europe today, the blind are lead­ing the blind.

Slavoj Žižek, a Sloven­ian philoso­pher and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is a senior researcher at the the Insti­tute for Human­i­ties, Birk­beck Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. He has also been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at more than 10 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, includ­ing Liv­ing in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dream­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly and Trou­ble in Paradise.
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