What Produces Democracy?

Geoff Eley, Professor for Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, speaks of the crisis of hegemony and the crisis of representation, produced by the dislocations and de-legitimisations of the processes of capitalist restructuring and class recomposition. He also analyses the Left’s challenges and the right’s responses in addressing this dual crisis.

Geoff Eley was interviewed by Aimilia Koukouma, an economist and a researcher at Nicos Poulantzas Institute, and Petros-Iosif Stanganelli, a historian and a member of the editing group of  "Anagnoseis", Avgi’s newpaper insert.
Almost two years ago, in an interview of yours at the Viewpoint Magazine, you mentioned that “it seems self-defeating just to ignore elections or relegate them to purely instrumental or tactical importance”. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that in the case of Greece, and despite the results of the elections in the end of January and the outcome of the Referendum in early July 2015, the EU demanded the rigorous implementation of austerity and the harsh measures that are included on the Memoranda (MoUs). Furthermore, in Portugal we observed immediate and strong interventions by both domestic and external actors, in order to prevent the establishment of a coalition government of communist and socialist parties. Taking account of the above, do you believe that the expression of popular will in one country continues to play an important role?
Geoff Eley: My own starting-point here is a kind of cautionary acceptance of complexity – of the many different levels and aspects (registers, spatialities, time-scales) we need to consider when strategizing the possibilities for an effective political intervention. The consequences of everything we now summarize as neoliberalism (which is really a shorthand for the processes of capitalist restructuring and class recomposition occurring in Europe since the 1970s) make that complexity inescapable: effective political action has no choice but to negotiate the difficult and often opaque relations linking the micro and the macro, the mobile configurations of local, regional, national, transnational, and global decision-making nexi and locations, the incredibly elusive redefinitions of institutional access and accountability, and all of the disconcertingly non-democratic redistributions of sovereignty that globalization so patently entails. This may seem very abstract, but it’s vital that we find ways of beginning from this understanding, from this grasp of the structural constraints on the effects of political action – not just for theoretical purposes, but to develop ways of speaking in a principled fashion to existing and potential supporters. I don’t intend this as a “realism” in the philosophical or theoretical sense. Rather, it’s a means of trying to be as clear as possible about what we can and cannot hope to achieve in any one country or any single election campaign, or for that matter from an electoral strategy in isolation from other modalities of political action. The clear-headedness about limitations is a necessary way of fore fending against the terrible cycle of ill-defined but heady expectations of what any particular campaign can accomplish and the disillusionment that comes with the setbacks when the apparent victory turns into just one more defeat.
That’s my oblique way of beginning to answer your question about Greece and Portugal. Of course, I agree that we can hardly expect a successful breakthrough to genuinely radical policies with real democratic accountability to occur inside a single country in isolation, especially when that country occupies a position of such extreme vulnerability in the overall power relations of the European and global economies. That would be true even without the increasingly rigidified and punitive regulatory regime of the EU, but the effect of that actually existing EU regime is to maximize the harshness of the austerity measures so consistently demanded and applied by the political executives of German capital and their eastern and northern European allies. Likewise, the problem is not the Left’s political focus on elections in itself, but the all-too-common over-investment in the possible significance of any one electoral outcome on the one hand, and the exclusiveness of focus on an electoral strategy on the other hand. Elections have to be treated as a main priority for the Left because electoral mobilization at the level of the national polity remains one of the very few arenas of democratically constituted collective action we still possess, however flawed and prosaic this might be. So the real trick – the great unresolved challenge facing the Left after the atrophy of the old Socialist and Communist Parties since the 1970s – is to find ways of articulating such national electoral activity to a larger political strategy that’s capable of sustaining popular hopes and popular mobilization beyond and beside what happens inside the transience of a successful election campaign.
If ultimately success will arrive only when the Left achieves a breakthrough in the core societies of the EU, especially Germany, or in the central institutional arenas of EU decision-making per se, that doesn’t mean that change can’t also be initiated from the so-called periphery. It’s not unknown historically, after all, for chains to be broken at the weakest link. Taking the EU as a whole, change is already reverberating “inwards” from Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The Corbyn phenomenon in Britain and “Nuit debout” are each signs of movement in that regard.
What is your opinion on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and how can you explain his significant progress up to now? In Europe, and particularly since the 1980s, social democracy has abandoned its efforts to defend the welfare state and does not even refer to social inequality, not to mention the fact that the general political line of the so-called social democracy is nowadays almost indistinguishable from that of the mainstream neoliberal political forces. Is there something that European Left can learn from the case of Sanders?
Geoff Eley: It’s important not to get too carried away by the remarkable and entirely unexpected success of the Sanders campaign. It does provide welcome evidence of genuinely widespread sympathy for “socialist” ideas and a range of policies that exceed the existing frame of progressive thinking allowable by the terms of the neoliberal consensus, especially for younger people. It has definitely opened a space where certain ideas and policies have become legitimate and discussable again. Some of those ideas even start to look a little like social democracy, albeit in the most modest of redistributive ways. I’m not sure this goes quite as far as a revival of a language of public goods or a welfare state, let alone a revaluing of trade unions and organized labor. But Sanders’ willingness to talk forthrightly about social inequality and the necessities of addressing it, while not shying away from the language of socialism, however diffuse, is nonetheless impressive. In these terms, as you say, European social democracy has almost entirely counted itself out over the past few decades, regrouping on the ground of the neoliberal politics bequeathed by the 1980s, with virtually no remaining commitment to even the terribly modest reformism still surviving into the 1960s. Simply by showing that the languages of radical reform and even socialism can be legitimately spoken again, the Sanders campaign gives the European Left something to learn. More fundamentally, the campaign suggests how the normally dispersed activism of particular cities and regions, along with the discrete constituencies of countless single-issue causes and campaigns, can produce continuity over time and coalesce into a potential movement of longer-term and wider-than-local resonance.
The far-right has achieved significant victories, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Scandinavian countries. Are there any common features or ideological similarities between these victories, or do we have to be very careful and distinguish these new forms of the rising extreme right (for example, in order to distinguish between the rise of some kind of nostalgia for Nazism in Ukraine and Hungary on the one hand, and the Scandinavian xenophobic far right parties on the other)?
Geoff Eley: I broadly agree with the second part of your question, i.e. the importance of separating the self-styled and overtly neo-fascist groups from the wider field of right-wing contentiousness currently concentrating around migrancy, the refugee crisis, fear of foreigners, and a generalized hostility to Islam. Self-styled neo-fascist groups and parties do definitely exist, usually on a relative small-scale basis, country by country, whether by lines of indigenous descent from the 1940s and overt nostalgia for Nazism or from more vicarious forms of attachment to Nazism or Italian Fascism. But still more worrying is certainly the broader swell of far-right militancy, for which the contemporary language of “race” focused on cultural belonging, social entitlements, angry intolerance of others, and a narrowly conceived idea of skin- and birth-based citizenship has become the main mobilizing idea. The most disquieting aspect of the present, across Europe as a whole, is the convergence of these two phenomena: the ideologically self-conscious fascist formations on the one hand, and a much broader-based right-wing populism centered around ideas of race on the other. Proceeding from the authoritarian ground of the politics of law and order, the resulting coalition potentially integrates elements of the more traditionalist conservative sector too, while gathering up the discontents of many petty bourgeois and working-class voters who’ve been damaged by austerity and the societal dislocations resulting from capitalist restructuring and longer-term economic change. Yet a further ingredient is supplied by the demonstrable sympathies inside the police and state security apparatuses. Without a determined, self-conscious, and imaginative political response to all of this from the Left, the potential dangers of an ever-broadening right-wing coalescence of this kind that’s capable of shifting the basic terms of political discourse decisively to the right become troublingly real.
We are living in a period of multiple crises, witnessing an economic crisis without foreseeable end, a crisis of representation with the decline in people’s public participation, and the rise of neo-fascism. Do you believe that the present time has a common background with that of the 1930s?
Geoff Eley: I do think the comparison with the 1930s has some important value – not because the two economic crises replicate each other, or the specific character of the popular political formations of right and left in the two periods are the same, but because the terms of the two political crises display certain vital features in common. And here I’m still very much of a Poulantzian. Both in the Germany of the early 1930s and in the Europe of today we’re dealing with a powerfully intersecting and increasingly acute dual crisis: in Poulantzas’s terms, a crisis of representation and a crisis of hegemony. On the one hand, the state-institutional complex becomes immobilized and ceases effectively to function, so that the essential process of negotiating a solid enough basis of cohesion among the key fractions of the dominant classes becomes increasingly hard to manage. In that case, alternatives to parliamentary constitutionalism such as a presidential dictatorship (as under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution) or a “government of experts” or some other form of authoritarian and non-accountable government start to gather support among the right and their allies, so that constitutional democracy can be dismantled and suspended. On the other hand, the process of mobilizing a sufficient breadth of popular support among the electorate also becomes too hard to accomplish, so that the existing parties are no longer able to deliver the needed support and their apparatuses fall apart. In that case, the popular constituencies begin to look elsewhere too. If we use this framework of a dual crisis, then we have a very good means of beginning to assess the political fallout from the crisis of 2008, it seems to me – whether at the level of the EU overall or on a country-by-country basis, capitalism by capitalism, polity by polity. In this sense, I do think the crisis of the 1930s has something in common with today.
Alexander E. Gauland, a leading politician of Germany’s AfD party, claims that “AfD is a party of ordinary people. In this sense, we mean people who don’t want to have their homes near the accommodation centers for asylum seekers… We must take them into serious consideration and grab their fears and grasp their anxieties”. What’s your comment on the emergence of this particular party in German politics? Would you like to make a more general comment concerning the recent debate on the pursuit of a “national German identity”?  
Geoff Eley: To an impressive degree, Germans have been unusually successful and consistent in a willingness to face up to the genocidal aspects of the national past, including all of the crimes of Nazism and the Second World War, at the center of which is the Shoah and the wider genocidal record of the regime. Of course, this was always unevenly true, across generations, social categories, and the various parts of the political spectrum. It’s also the decisive accomplishment of the debates occurring during the 1960s and 70s, whose effects have needed constantly to be defended and reaffirmed. The mid 1980s saw one dramatic explosion of public interest and contention around those matters (e.g. in the so-called Historikerstreit ["historians’ quarrel"] and similar controversies); the fallout from German unification produced a whole string of such debates; the response to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, to the Wehrmacht Exhibit, to the rash of interest in German victimhood under the bombing war were all further examples, and the list can go on and on.
In the main, the principled left position, epitomized by Jurgen Habermas, successfully reaffirmed the importance of German ethico-political responsibility and the continuing necessity for Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung. Comparatively speaking, this is a remarkable feature of postwar European history, an example that other societies might well be enjoined to follow. At the same time, there’s a way in which all of this mindfulness has become too easily concentrated around the Holocaust per se, so that the many other features of the consequences of Germany’s violent 20th-century expansionism don’t receive as much attention – notably those consequent on Germany’s overweening political-economic preponderance inside the regulative regime of the EU and its relation to earlier moments of such German expansionism like the 1940s. I don’t have to remind you of the most recent manifestations of this syndrome, such as the comportment of the German government during the continuing crisis of the Greek economy. Some collective self-awareness regarding these aspects of the effects of German power in the world remains the blind spot in this otherwise impressive record of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung. Of course these certainly don’t have equivalence, and in other areas of international politics Germany’s stance has been very impressive again, such as Merkel’s initial response to the political and ethical emergency of the Syrian refugee crisis, when other European governments were distressingly inactive. But some additional collective self-awareness regarding Germany’s historic impact on the east and south-east of the continent would make the above-mentioned record all the more impressive.
The interview was first released in Greek and is available at: http://avgi-anagnoseis.blogspot.gr/2016/05/blog-post_66.html.