The European Union is a liberal empire, and it is about to fall

The London School of Economics and Political Science, Brexit Blog, March 2019.

What is the European Union? The closest concept I can come up with is that of a liberal empire. An empire is a hierarchically structured block of states held together by a gradient of power from a centre to a periphery. At the centre of the EU is Germany, trying more or less successfully to hide inside a “Core Europe” (Kerneuropa) formed together with France. Germany doesn’t want to be seen as what the British used to call a Continental Unifier, even if in fact this is what it is. That it likes to hide behind France is a source of power for France vis-a-vis Germany.

Like other imperial countries, most recently the United States, Germany conceives of itself, and wants others to do the same, as a benevolent hegemon doing nothing else than spreading universal common sense and moral virtues to its neighbours, at a cost to itself that is, however, worth bearing for the sake of humanity. In the German-cum-European case, the “values” that are to give legitimacy to empire are those of liberal democracy, constitutional government and individual liberty, in short, the values of political liberalism. Wrapped into them, to be displayed when expedient, are free markets and free competition, i.e., economic liberalism. Determining the exact composition and the deeper meaning of the imperial value package and how it is to be applied in specific situations is a prerogative of the hegemonic centre – enabling it to extract a sort of political seigniorage from its periphery in return for its benevolence. (…)

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Greek to a Greek

Review of Yanis Varoufakis (2017), Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, London: The Bodley Head.

Appeared in Inference: International Review of Science 4 (3), March 2019.

What a strange book—strange but indispensable nevertheless. From January to July 2015, Yanis Varoufakis served as the Greek government’s finance minister. Adults in the Room is an account of his battle with what he calls Europe’s deep establishment. It is often self-indulgent, sometimes sentimental. He also takes pains to show he is human. He describes his happy marriage. He takes dinner with friends. He remembers his student days, and argues with his daughters. He encounters German secret service agents who unaccountably urge him to continue fighting the good fight. His mistakes he assigns to a nature that is too trusting given the intrigues both abroad and at the court of Alexis Tsipras, his prime minister and the leader of Syriza.

And yet, the book is indispensable. For whom? For the journalists who helped the masters of Europe get rid of Varoufakis; for the armies of European functionaries, les ronds-de-cuir; and, one might hope, for teachers and students of the policy sciences. Varoufakis’s book provides an honest account of how our world is governed. It will be plausible to anyone who has tried to make sense of political life without falling victim to the charm of political power. (…)

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Reflections on Political Scale

Adam Smith Lecture in Jurisprudence, University of Glasgow, 30 May 2018. Published online on February 6, 2019, in: Jurisprudence: An International Journal of Legal and Political Thought.

I start, not with Smith – he will show up near the end – but with a close friend of his, the historian Edward Gibbon. In the fourth volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1788, Gibbon’s narrative reaches the point when in the late fifth century the Western Roman Empire forever expired. Before he finally turns his attention to the history of Byzantium, Gibbon pauses to look back at more than four centuries of Roman imperial statehood to consider what the ‘awful revolution’ he has recounted might mean for ‘the instruction of the present age’. (…)

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Through Unending Halls

Review of Joshua B. Freeman (2018), Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Appeared in London Review of Books 41 (3), 2019, 29-31.

It was in the early 1960s, I think, that our class at a small-town Gymnasium made a trip to south-western Germany, accompanied by several teachers. We visited Heidelberg and Schwetzingen and similar places without really seeing them; 17-year-old boys have other things on their minds. But we also went to Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt, for a tour of the Opel car factory. I had never imagined that a place like this could exist: the deafening noise, the dirt, the heat, and in the middle of it all, people stoically performing minute predefined operations on the cars-in-the-making that were slowly but relentlessly moving past their work stations. The high point of the visit was the foundry in the basement – which, as I now learn from Joshua Freeman’s marvellous book, was the standard place for foundries in car factories of that era. Here, where the heat seemed unbearable and there was almost no light, half-naked men carried the molten metal, red-hot, from the furnace to the casting stations in small buckets filled to a back-breaking weight. Trained in the classics rather than the real world, I felt I had entered the workshop of Hephaestus. Looking back, I think it was on that day I decided to study sociology, which I then believed could help me and others to improve the lives of those slaving away in the basements of factories everywhere. (…)

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Globalization and the Transformation of the International State System

Norbert Lechner Lecture, Diego Portales University, Chile, November 14, 2018.

In a globally integrated capitalist economy borders between states are supposed to become economically irrelevant. Globalization is the ultimate form of liberalization; it shields free markets, instituted on a global scale, from national state intervention, in particular of a redistributive kind. Rather than markets located in states, under globalization states become located in markets. This has momentous consequences for the nature of statehood, both domestically and internationally. States located in markets lose the capacity to protect their economies and societies from market competition; in fact their economic role, if one is left for them at all, is to deregulate their national economies in order to make them more competitive, internally first and as a consequence externally as well. (…)

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L’Europa sotto il Merkel IV: un bilancio di impotenza

Pubblicato su Appello al popolo, rivista del Fronte Sovranista Italiano, 28 novembre, 2018.
Tradotto dall’inglese da Massimiliano Sist.

Original title: Europe under Merkel IV: Balance of Impotence, appeared in American Affairs Journal Volume II, Number 2 (Summer 2018): 162–92.

L’Europa organizzata, o disorganizzata, nell’Unione europea (UE), è una strana bestia
politica. Consiste, in primo luogo, nelle politiche interne dei suoi stati membri che, nel tempo, si sono profondamente intrecciate.
In secondo luogo, gli stati membri, che sono ancora Stati sovrani, perseguono interessi definiti a livello di singola nazione attraverso le politiche estere, ancora nazionali, all’interno di relazioni internazionali intraeuropee. Qui, in terzo luogo, possono scegliere tra fare affidamento su una varietà di istituzioni sovranazionali o su accordi intergovernativi tra coalizioni selezionate di volontari.
In quarto luogo, dall’inizio dell’Unione Monetaria Europea (UME), che comprende solo diciannove dei ventotto stati membri della UE, è emersa un’altra arena di relazioni internazionali europee, costituita principalmente da istituzioni informali e intergovernative, guardate con sospetto dalla sovranazionale Unione Europea.
Quinto, tutto questo è radicato nelle condizioni geopolitiche e negli interessi geostrategici di ogni nazione, che sono legate in particolare agli Stati Uniti da un lato e alla Russia, all’Europa orientale, ai Balcani, al Mediterraneo orientale e al Medio Oriente dall’altro.
E sesto, c’è, in fondo al sistema statale europeo, una battaglia in corso per l’egemonia tra I suoi due maggiori paesi membri, Francia e Germania, una battaglia che entrambi negano. Ognuno dei due, a suo modo, considera la sua pretesa di supremazia europea come una realtà giusta e assolutamente ovvia, la Germania tanto da non riconoscere nemmeno le sue ambizioni in quanto tali. (…)

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L’Europe sous Merkel IV. Un équilibre de l’impuissance

Published in Le débat No. 202, novembre – décembre 2018: 60-80.

Original title: Europe under Merkel IV: Balance of Impotence, appeared in American Affairs Journal Volume II, Number 2 (Summer 2018): 162–92.

L’Europe, telle qu’elle est organisée – ou désorganisée – dans l’Union européenne (UE), est un étrange animal politique. Elle comprend d’abord les politiques intérieures de ses États membres qui, au fil du temps, se sont profondément entrelacées. Deuxièmement, les États membres, qui sont encore des États-nations souverains, poursuivent des intérêts définis au niveau national par le biais de politiques étrangères nationales dans le cadre des relations internationales intra-européennes. Troisièmement, ils ont le choix entre s’appuyer sur une variété d’institutions supranationales ou sur des accords intergouvernementaux entre coalitions choisies de volontaires. Quatrièmement, depuis le début de l’Union monétaire européenne (UEM), qui ne comprend que dix-neuf des vingt-huit États membres de l’UE, une autre arène des relations internationales européennes est apparue, constituée principalement d’institutions intergouvernementales informelles, considérées avec suspicion par l’UE supranationale. Cinquièmement, tout cela s’inscrit dans les conditions géopolitiques et les intérêts géostratégiques de chaque nation, qui sont liés en particulier aux États-Unis d’une part, et à la Russie, à l’Europe de l’Est, aux Balkans, à la Méditerranée orientale et au Moyen-Orient d’autre part. Et sixièmement, il y a au plus profond du système étatique européen une bataille permanente pour l’hégémonie entre ses deux plus grands pays membres, la France et l’Allemagne – une bataille que les deux nient.(…)

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