Villagers and Eurocrats

dinner-in-the-sky-brussel-008[In this post, the link to elite ideology that I promised in Slaves to Serfs will emerge clearly.  — Here, sticking to my decision not to edit was a challenge.  Let me repeat that these were written four years ago.  It has been a busy four years.  If I started editing – even just to improve the flow of ideas – I would start trying to “update” the piece to reflect everything that has happened, and I would probably never finish.  Instead I will leave it as-is, with the added benefit that you can decide for yourselves whether my political instincts aged well.]

In America, interested observers of all political stripes are able to identify a corrupting effect in politics whereby honest, idealist people first become politicians, then have their interests align with those of the political elite, and increasingly are forced to see the world relative to the fears and desires of America’s social elite.  Right-wingers are more likely to talk of “the Beltway”, with the implication that there is a geographical region of the country with interests opposed to (say) “the heartland”.  Progressives speak of “Villagers” or “Very Serious Persons”, with the implication that it is a closed loop, an incestuous social circle, which has internal values that are immune to external criticism.  The idea is similar on either side of the aisle: cooptation of honest, capable people into a feckless metropolitan elite.

Meanwhile, looking across the Atlantic Ocean: from the American perspective what is notable about European politics — or at least, what has been noticeable over the last several decades — is the complete unwillingness of the member states of the European Union to put even quite large common benefits ahead of the most petty local interest.  Some observers tend to see this as dooming the European project (and good riddance!) while others bewail the shortsightedness… but regardless, as of 2000 or 2005, most Americans were not enthusiastic about whether the Eurostates had the commitment to pan-European unity that would make a more deeply-integrated Europe possible.

And then came the 2008 financial crisis, and the subsequent waves of bank failures in states using the Euro, and American observers were amazed time and time again.  Now the political elites of the various European countries were completely united – united in pushing austerity policies that were destroying the individual member states.  Finally, European unity, in the name of the destruction of the entire European periphery.

What happened is quite clear if you look at the career histories of individual European politicians.  When a country enters crisis, any politicians who defy the Eurocrat insititutions draw the wrath of every other country in the Union, and when the downturn worsens even their own Europhobic parties reject them.  But a politician who embraces the one true faith of Europeanism cannot go wrong; he may lose elections, but having proved his loyalty to “Europe”, the Eurocrats can find him a plum positions in one of the Eurocrat institutions.  No doubt there are also boards of directors, and private research institutes, and speaking fees available.  In short, a politician cannot go far wrong by sacrificing his native land to Eurocrat orthodoxy, and he cannot go far right by defying Brussels.  If he is lucky, a career Eurocrat can even be appointed proconsul of his native land, like Mario Monti.

What we saw originally was a cadre of American politicians who were certainly patriotic and nationalistic, but seemed strangely incapable of getting obvious things done or adopting to obvious facts, and a cadre of European politicians who seemed relatively canny about what Europeans needed and completely unwilling to make any concessions to the greater good.  Now we are starting to see European unity, European solidarity — and it comes hand in hand with the exact sort of breathtaking stupidity long-associated with incompetent American politicians.

The explanation, it seems to me, is not far to seek.  There is no such thing as national unity or national disunity, no such thing as patriotism or selflessness; there are only metropolitan elites and provincial elites.  Provincial or parochial elites have risen to the top of their particular fishbowl, and have no further interests beyond making sure that it remains a powerful, secure, well-defended fishbowl.  But when a system of elites expands beyond a single province and instead becomes a mobile, fluid elite class, equally comfortable in any of the parishes of their native empire, the town where the president was born fades in importance.  To the sentimental, this is nationalism, unity, self-denial; but in fact, it is merely elitism.  For me to do greater damage to your parish to protect my parish would be an insult to you, and that would jeopardize our personal relationship, and that would damage my standing in the overall network of the metropolitan elites.  But before this national network of elites existed, each parochial elite had been committed to some very obvious steps that were good for each parish separately, and thus for all of them together.

No one wants to be the most powerful man in Tumbleweed County.  But now that the elites are metropolitan and no longer identified with the status of any individual region, they see no reason not to enrich the elite as a whole by (for example) pursuing intensely deflationary monetary policies.  To those who are not in the elite and cannot understand the pressures and privileges of a spot in the network of power, the elites appear to be alternatively pursuing policies that are very noble and policies that are laughably stupid.  But in a metropolitan elite that is in the process of creation, we can see exactly what is happening.  The sacrifices to “the nation” are actually concessions to and deference for the consensus of the metropolitan elite.  The policies that seem stupid, insular and inexplicable are extremely important to the elite; the excellent policies that die in committee, are contrary to those interests.

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2 thoughts on “Villagers and Eurocrats

  1. […] Thus Anderson’s tagline: “imagined communities”.  The “imagined communities” argument has a fatal weakness, however.  On close examination, Anderson appears to equivocate between nations and national elites: his account of how people come to suffer from false consciousness seems to describe the ideology of national elites accurately enough, but is a poor match for anyone else (which is to say, practically everyone).  But then again, when an elite is sufficiently tight-knit and insular, maybe they aren’t wrong to imagine they all reside in the same village; this is the subtext of Villagers and Eurocrats. […]

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