April 9th, 2014
The following is part two of a post by Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. You can read the first half of the post here.
“The grievances against austerity that are now being expressed in street protests and in voting booths are the grievances of distressed consumers; not of citizens demanding structural changes to the political economy of democratic capitalism.”—Albena Azmanova
THE STATE: MORE POWERFUL, LESS RESPONSIBLE, INVARIABLY LEGITIMATE
How has the coup d’économie managed to transform Europe into a Dictatorship of the Four Economic Freedoms? Above all, by altering the role of political authority in Europe. Public authority (at all levels of governance) has undertaken ever more policy action to intensify wealth-production, but less and less action to manage the social costs of growth-generating public policy. This is particularly evident with regard to social policy in the European Union.
EU integration has reduced the policy-making powers of member-states in welfare provision, while EU institutions, over the past decade, have increasingly started to taken action in this field. This shifting balance between member-states and the EU in itself is not alarming; it is not even interesting. The important question is not where policy-making authority is allocated, but what type of social policy ensues from the re-allocation of responsibility between states and EU’s central policy-making bodies. In this regard, three elements are noteworthy.
First: in the course of shifting responsibility from state to EU level, there is less and less public authority in charge of welfare provision. This is the case because the retrenchment of the state is not matched by an equal increase of policy action at EU level. In other words, what the states are losing in terms of capacity to secure social rights is not matched by an equal increase in the responsibility of the EU to safeguard these rights.
Second: since the adoption of the Single European Act, economic integration within the EU has been invariably interpreted in the terms of free-market capitalism (while in principle open markets are not synonymous with free markets).
This has resulted in a radically liberal form of welfare provision: one marked by subordination of social policy to free-market policy priorities, a race to the bottom in social protection.
Overall the range and nature of the responsibility of public authority has changed, which has affected the style of governance. At both state and EU level, public authority is undertaking ever more action to enhance market efficiency (for the sake of global competitiveness), with dramatic increase in social risk, but this same public authority has ceased to assume responsibility for the generated risk. Rather than a retrenchment of the state, we have the new phenomenon of increase in the power of governing bodies (and their capacity to inflict social harm), while their responsibility for the social consequences of policy action decreases. This discrepancy between power and responsibility is damaging for societies, as the exercise of power becomes ever more autocratic, even if all rituals of democratic politics are meticulously performed.
Arguably, the discrepancy between power and responsibility should be eroding the authority of states, as Richard Sennett has argued. This, in turn, could be expected to trigger a legitimation crisis of the system, and massive revolts. Yet, no such crisis has so far ensued, apart from the wave of largely peaceful popular protests in the course of 2011-2012 whose main theme is resistance to the politics of austerity, rather than change of the political economy of Europe away from neoliberal capitalism.