Writing about the recent French government crisis in the New York Times, Paul Krugman raised some uncomfortable questions. He worried about the ongoing dominance of austerity illogic on this side of the Atlantic and what this says about public discourse and the effectiveness of progressive forces. He criticised the UK Labour Party for its unwillingness to challenge the Cameron/Osborne core premise of austerity and there is no shortage of other European examples he could have quoted. So why are European progressives not breaking out of the austerity framework, even though there is so much evidence by now that it simply does not work?
Krugman puts forward two hypotheses:
One is that the US intellectual ecology seems much more flexible: here, serious economists with celebrated research can also be public intellectuals with large followings, and even serve as public officials; and they can provide at least some counterweight to the Very Serious People. (…)
Another hypothesis is that American liberals have been toughened up by the craziness of our right, and in particular by the experience of the Bush years. After seeing the Very Serious People lionize W, a fundamentally ludicrous figure, and cheer on a war that was obviously cooked up on false pretenses, US liberals are more ready than European Social Democrats to believe that the men in good suits have no idea what they’re talking about. Oh, and America does have a network of progressive think tanks that is vastly bigger and more effective than anything in Europe.
The first point may have some merit but fails to explain why Europe is stuck with austerity. Sure, there might be more serious economists in important positions in the US than over here but there is no real lack of eminent voices against austerity in and outside high office (think Mario Draghi, Martin Wolf, George Soros and the likes).
Krugman’s second argument starts to get to the real issue: European progressives are simply not united on the case against austerity and Europe’s progressive think tanks are not as numerous and effective as in the US. We could speculate a lot on why our institutions over here seem to be more think and less tank with the resulting lack of firepower but let me add two hypotheses of my own which could help to explain what is going on. I think there are two important structural differences between the US and Europe.
First, in the US we have one public discourse. In the European Union, we still have 28 connected national discourses. The division in Eurozone debtor and creditor countries for instance has soured the political mood considerably and has put national progressive parties (and that is what we are talking about – not one set of European progressives) against each other. In the name of the ‘national interest’ one group of progressives claims to protect the prudent taxpayers in their country whereas the other tries to losen the grip of ‘Euro-colonialists’ on their sovereign national decision-making. In these circumstances, it is simply very, very difficult to come up with a united stance against austerity. And path dependency suggests that the longer progressives are stuck in this conflict, the harder it is to break out.
Second, too many progressive politicians are trying to play to short-term public opinion even though this is not in the best medium to long-term interest. They are stuck in what I like to call transactional politics and don’t dare to move towards more transformational politics. The difference is simple: a transactional politician tries to supply the policies that are demanded by the population at any given time. A transformational politician’s first aim is to move things on and implement a medium- to long-term strategy that changes society for the better (see also my paper on the Good Society).
Given the fragmentation of public discourse mentioned above, a transactional politician is unlikely to think “European” (long-term and transformational) and challenge public opinion in his/her home country, for instance on the need for fiscal transfers to stabilise the Eurozone, as it would inflict short-term pain in favour of long-term gain. A transformational politician would have long-term gain in his sight even though this might mean short-term electoral setbacks. And all this assumes that the intellectual case against austeirty is universally accepted, which unfortunately it is not in my experience.
In a nutshell, Krugman’s point about the effectiveness of Europe’s progressive political infrastructure is correct. But I think this is not a cause in itself but the result of a very fragmented public discourse. Being stuck in transactional politics does not help to break the deadlock either. I am not quite sure how this puzzle can be solved but I think these are two of the important reasons for why it hasn’t happened so far.
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