The Text is Not The Territory

Chancellor Merkel says that the free movement of people in the European Union is not negotiable. A bit of paper was signed and that is that. The bit of paper binds the peoples of Europe by treaty obligations. However, politics has a tendency to question texts.

We assume that the liberal rule of law and correct procedure on the one hand and of democracy on the other are necessarily part of the same package but they are not. They are different ideological constructs and we are learning this the hard way.

Amongst the many reactions to interwar fascism was a dislike of the plebiscite (and so of the referendum) and a concern to place due process, after settlements by representative elites, ahead of any direct exercise of the will of the people. The elites would 'rationalise' and 'square' or 'triangulate' for peace and prosperity.

The potential for a serious modern disconnect between popular desire, diverted for so many decades into consumer and lifestyle choices (until the Crash of 2008 brought everything down to earth with a bump), and the compromises to be made between ‘representative’ legislators, lobbyists, ‘civil society’ and states was not apparent.

But something has changed and not only in Europe. In the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ did not bring us very many liberal democracies (Tunisia perhaps excepted). Revolution after revolution (since Iran in 1979 in fact) merely showed what ’68 showed in France – that revolutions result in conservative democratic reactions. Liberal reform has tended to come from stable acceptance of existing conditions.

Back in Europe, a new tension between the popular will and a carefully constructed representative system of professional political elites arose in a way that Marx might have explained in materialist terms. The crash of 2008 has still not been worked through, the economies of Europe are in the doldrums and a lot of people are hurting very badly.

For example, in the UK UKIP is gathering votes from the seaside towns along the East Anglian and Kentish littoral because it is these towns that are hurting most from the rush of economic blood to the heart of London in what had been an economic heart attack. These places have poor transport links. Trade and employment are weak. They are also places where the migrants turn up.

In an accident of history, the urban areas along this littoral are also feeders for a fishing industry that has died from an excess of liberal rationality in Brussels and an agricultural sector that can only be competitive if it has access to seasonal imported and very cheap labour. The actual numbers of migrants are almost certainly exagerrated but they are noticed in the towns.

Small shopkeepers are stuck in a time warp with trade flat or falling, surrounded by people whose benefits are being cut, who can’t get jobs or who can only get jobs if they accept the low wages acceptable to migrant workers who remit some of what they can spare home.

To say that the undercutting of labour value is not taking place is daft because the policy was originally designed to do just that. The assumption, however, of policymakers was that economic growth would continue, create more jobs and so increase wages for all Europeans. With 50% youth unemployment in Greece and Spain alone, this is just not happening.

Europeans are getting hungrier and following the paths to opportunity laid out in the liberal texts. Those at the other end of their journey are feeling not merely detached from their own elites but abandoned as their economic status flat-lines and becomes confused with issues of identity and history. This is politics - at a certain point the texts won’t matter anymore.


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