Works Reviewed: Slavoj Zizek & Srecko Horvat. What Does Europe Want? The Union and its Discontents. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
In the political pamphlet What Is To Be Done, published in 1902, Vladimir Lenin presciently draws a link between “Economism” and terrorism. He chastises those who are fixated on the spontaneity of mass-movements and action, even to the point of advocating terror as a means of “exciting the working-class movement and giving it a strong impetus.” “Are there not,” he asks sardonically, “enough outrages committed in Russian life without special ‘excitants’ having to be invented?” The “Economists”, on the other hand, recommend the apparently more gentle, if less exciting, approach of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character.” What both groups studiously avoid is the organisation of comprehensive political agitation and analysis of their own activity in “political agitation and the organisation of political exposure.” One group goes off searching for artificial ‘excitants’ while the other insists upon talking about “demands.”
“Concrete demands,” of course, is a euphemism for the types of demands which the economic elite is willing to accommodate. The two tracks identified by Lenin, that of the adventurer and that of the bureaucrat, are precisely what we have seen develop in the days and years following movements around the world, movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. The use of terrorist tactics are not limited to those who are granted the label; the American use of drone strikes is itself a significant act of terrorism. At this point we would be justified in speaking not of a “war on terror,” but of terrorist warfare, practiced by jihadists and corporatists alike. What is largely missing is the practice of sustained political agitation and truth-telling.
It is to this dearth of political organization that Srecko Horvat and Slavoj Zizek turn to in What Does Europe Want? The Union and its Discontents. In the preface Horvat analyses the Hollywood treatment of the Occupy Wall Street movement as told through Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan, who had taken a plane to New York to film the Occupy protestors while his new Batman movie was under production, presents the choice as one between the existing order of power concentrated in the hands of the financial elite, represented by Batman, or in the brutal violence of Bane. It does not represent, notes Horvat, the conflict between the 1% and the 99%, but rather between one terror and another. It is the false choice between economism and terrorism; as though the huge global mobilization of 2011 could only end in the confirmation of the neoliberal order under Obama in America, the return of military rule to Egypt, or the instigation of Salafist terrorism. The problem, says Horvat, is that structures and organizations that can channel mass political energy and seriously challenge different power relations still need to be built.
What Does Europe Want? offers itself as manifesto for the building of such structures and organizations. It is a manifesto of the political legacy of social democracy inn Europe, and a rallying cry to the active participation of the masses in politics. Composed not long before Syriza rose to power in Greece the book also contains two essays by Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras calls for a new vision of the real economy in which the public good, environmental protection, and decent work conditions are held as the main criterion. “The future,” writes Tsipras, “does not belong to neoliberalism, bankers, and a few powerful multinational companies. The future belongs to the nation and society. It’s time to open the way for a democratic, socially cohesive and free Europe. Because this is the viable, realistic, and feasible solution to exit the current crisis.” (xiv)
Tsipras has no illusions about the difficulties that face this political undertaking. Nor do Horvat and Zizek. The generalized European model, says Tsipras, was created not to save Greece but to destroy it. “Europe’s future is already planned and it envisages happy bankers and unhappy societies.” (xi) Save us from the saviours, writes Zizek, noting that it is a mistake to view the Greek crisis as a humanitarian crisis. “The Greeks are not passive victims: they are at war with the European economic establishment, and what they need is solidarity in their struggle because it is our struggle too.” (89)
Depictions in the media of Greece’s current situation studiously avoid any indications of solidarity across national lines. Greece, and the beleaguered Syriza, must face the European Union, but really the banks of Europe, alone. The future had already been decided, before Alexis Tsipras took power; it was and is a Europe where “monetarism, harsh austerity, and the demolition of the society will be the answer, no matter what the question might be.” (150) This set of ideals, however, will in the long-run mean the dissolution of European society and its political and moral degradation. Tsipras is right to say that Europe will either be democractic and social or it will no longer exist. There is a need, not only in Europe, for the revival of mass political movement, and of a utopian vision in politics which can challenge the life-threatening neoliberal idealism which currently holds sway in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. For this reason this is a book which deserves to be read.