After the sad reality of the extreme and populist right-wing gains in the European elections last May, a sober look at the European Union, and what the left should do, is long overdue.

Although many who voted for parties such as the National Front, UKIP and Jobbik did so because of their racist and chauvinist policies, for others, their votes for the right were about far more complicated concerns. Euroscepticism has become a vehicle to mobilise discontent against a nebulous collection of bureaucrats, limits on national sovereignty, and representative structures.

It is not only the far-right that criticizes the EU for these reasons. Many leftists do the same, and hold the European Union in contempt. Unfortunately, they are driven by a poor, one-dimensional view of the EU that sees it as solely a means for advancing inequality, rather than political reality. The work of the late Greek-French sociologist Nicos Poulantzas has never seemed more contemporary.

Writing in the late 1960s, Poulantzas explained in his theory of the state that it had been clear for some time that the radical social reforms pushed by mass-based leftist parties were becoming untenable, producing new approaches like Eurocommunism. These were no longer the glory days of Red Vienna in the 1920s. The increasingly global nature of capital accumulation was presenting a new and difficult challenge, made easier by the collapse of traditional leftist movements following the uprisings of 1968.

Poulantzas’ theories are not just an important tool for understanding the modern state. They are useful in understanding how governance was evolving at the time, breaking with orthodox Marxist ideas of the state monopoly of capitalism. As a Eurocommunist, he emphasized that the state is not a monolith. It is a material condensation of the relations of power, by which he meant that it is a hive of different social relationships that collectively form one giant social relation. The state isn’t just citizenry, on the one hand, and a capital city. It’s a mix of people, institutions and ideology.

Since it is a hive, each individual form of oppression provides an opportunity for democratization. Over time, these individual struggles for democracy have the effect of potentially altering the state’s makeup, and the balances of power within it. The question is not about “how to struggle against the state.” It is how to change the huge number of individual relations that structure our lives. That requires a different conception of the system we live in, and Poulantzas describes it astutely.

Podemos for the republic. Madrid, June 2014.

Podemos for the republic. Madrid, June 2014.

Poulantzas also used the term Authoritarian Statism, to refer to the current form of governance in European states. Authoritarian Statism describes an increased concentration of power in the executive, and entities that are not popularly elected. It collapses the traditional division between judiciary, legislature, and executive, as legal codes are increasingly disregarded, or simplified for the sake of rapid action. Elections still occur, and the constitutions are still obeyed, in theory, but democracy decays over time.

Authoritarian Statism is the most ideal situation for building the centralization of social power that is needed to command Poulantzas’ idea of the hive. It allows for a market-friendly system to permeate every social relation, and deprive citizens of any substantive control over their lives. The War on Terrorism is one example, with its emphasis on purging terrorism, and safeguarding the homeland.

It is clear that the European Union has proven Poulantzas correct. Brussels is increasingly asserting itself in every level of daily life, and oligarchs are reemerging to press their agendas with the barest performance of democracy, while the EU project is becoming increasingly difficult to separate from neoliberal ambitions. Whether in London, or Rome, momentum is towards a concerted rollback of the welfare state, an increasingly Dickensian continent, and ordinary people having little control over the forces that affect their lives.

These trends have led to the popular conclusion that leftists must abandon the European Union altogether, with a number of leftist parties championing secession. Many believe that this will lead to a possibility of people mattering more than supranational economics. We do agree to an extent. After all, the direction of EU policy has been towards market-friendly conditions that hold democracy in contempt. However, it is often informed by a reductive analysis that ignores the many benefits that do exist in membership. We are also doubtful that secession would produce a situation in which neoliberalism is alleviated, and mass-based left parties can return to power (if they even had it in the first place.)

The European Union does have some assets, such as a continent-wide parliament, large-scale economic cooperation, cultural funds, and freedom of movement through the Schengen zone. There is also something to be said for the EU’s ability to prevent murderous interstate conflict within its boundaries, although it does come with the heavy sacrifice of suppressed worker and grassroots movements. Leftists must take advantage of these benefits where they can, and recognize how many resources, and sources of potentially sweeping political strength, would be lost without access to the European Union.

The objective needs to be radically asserting the democratic spirit in institutions that are seemingly hostile to it. Anyone familiar with the labor movement is familiar with this social democratic approach. The limited democratic mechanisms that do exist should be used to develop an EU public sphere, and demand intense concessions. This would have the effect of placing more power into the hands of directly accountable bodies like the European Parliament, rather than unelected ones like the European Commission’s Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs.

1830 hits Athens. November 2012..

1830 hits Athens. November 2012..

However, these approaches need to be embraced carefully, given the ultimate weakness of European social democracy. Poulantzas is also important for understanding what needs to change about conventional left politics, arguing that since the state is a network, leftists need to move away from giant political parties as the sole engines of political discourse. Instead, they must move towards broad-based grassroots movements, and flexible networks of decentralized activists, with mass parties being one articulation of the wider push.

His justification was that at their worst, mass parties are tied to technocrats and the interest of elite groups, and become increasingly distanced from the needs of the people over time. Poulantzas must therefore inform a leftist politics that avoids the pitfalls of obsessive parliamentary reformism and lobbying that defeated the older European socialist parties.

The EU needs to be pressured by a combination of strong leftist parties, and innovative grassroots movements, that pressure various levels of society independently, but are linked together by a broader desire to transform the state as a whole into something more progressive. Brussels must then be pressured to take these forces seriously. Critically, they need to accept the existence of the European Union, and turn its institutions into targets of mass protest. It is not about destroying the European project. It is about fundamentally retooling it.

The major attitude that needs to be overcome is one that involves thinking that breaking with Brussels will somehow lead to sweeping left-wing reforms after being freed from the straight-jacket of EU directives. This does not only overlook how the European Union is a dynamic playing field, with many social and political relationships, on which leftists are able to contest power. It also ignores that power struggles would remain in Europe without the formal relationship of EU membership.

As we have seen in Greece, much of the pressure to privatize state services, and push budget cuts, was not applied through official EU mechanisms, but rather through good old-fashioned economic coercion. Debt negotiations occurred under continued pressure of the threat of withdrawal of financial support by countries such as Germany, acting through structures such as the European Central Bank. It is naive to believe that if the ECB was out of the equation, then the bailouts and forced budget cuts wouldn’t have happened. Germany would simply act through another intermediary, since these are actually interstate dynamics. They would happen without a Eurozone.

Similarly, the reliance of the majority of southern European states on German imports creates relations of dependence which exist almost independently of the framework of the EU. The European Union currently serves as a synonym for programs of economic austerity, deregulation, and privatization, but the political muscle that made them happen wouldn’t disappear if it was gone. They would simply find a new way to exercise themselves. All that the EU does is provide the opportunity to make inequality and economic domination a bit more efficient.

The temptation to abandon the European Union is therefore misguided.¬†Europe’s ailing left must spend its energy on rethinking its relationship with the EU, and appreciating the full complexities of the modern state, and how to interact with it. This is already being done intelligently by leftist parties in southern Europe, most notably Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza. Their electoral successes illustrate that smart politics are entirely possible, and there is also a desire for them. Importantly, if leftists are to fully exploit coming opportunities, the state needs to be conceived in more fluid terms, that reflect the full extent of how power and oppression has evolved in market-driven society. Poulantzas is a start, but he is simply one thinker in an overall trend that needs to reevaluate past certainties, accept the existence of bodies like the European Union, and practice a new kind of leftist politics.


Photographs courtesy of Asne Hagen, 3Ro-Rokenublo, and SpirosK photography. Published under a Creative Commons License.