Start Up Nation from the Left

29 June 2020

Ceci est le second texte dans notre échange sur Slow Démocratie, par David Djaïz (Editions Allary, 2019). 


Few will remember the “Slow Science” movement. In 2011, a group of academics launched a call in The Atlantic for a decelerated research ethic. “We need time to think and we do need time to digest,” their manifesto claimed, including “time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences…. Science needs time.” The slow science movement was only part of a general trend towards slowness, from proponents of slow food to adherents of “slow living.” “Slow politics” was bound to join this one day. While Walter Benjamin once claimed that the real task of the revolutionary is to “pull the brakes on the train of history,” the slowness movement constitutes a modest but persistent posture of defiance against the age of acceleration.


David Djaïz’s Slow Démocratie offers a welcome extension of this motif into politics. Rather than accept the accelerating obsolescence of the nation-state, Djaïz urges progressives (the main target audience of his book) to return to “the nation” as both a unit of political imagination and a field of battle.


It takes courage to swim against the tide. For twenty years, readers have been bombarded with prophecies of the imminent digitalization of our public sphere, driven both by a tech sector eager for new markets, and a media caste which realizes that mainstream politics is cheaper when practiced online. The results have been anything but emancipatory. Across the West, new forms of illiberalism are thriving on the internet, reversing the wave of democratizations political scientists so hopefully diagnosed in the 1990s. To Djaïz these developments hardly come as a surprise. Echoing fellow countrymen such as Christophe Guilluy, Marcel Gauchet, and Thomas Piketty, Djaïz sees inequality as threatening “social cohesion” and the death of the “productive compromise” which tied the post-war era together. Across the West, the rich are retreating into enclaves while states become increasingly incapable of satisfying redistributive demands.


The digital is also no substitute for mass politics. Institutions that traditionally channelled these demands—parties, unions, churches—have atrophied, or increasingly operate without real political influence. The speeding up of markets has sped up politics itself. Politicians have increasingly drawn in PR specialists or marketeers, throwing a whole wing of passengers off the carrousel.


There is an alternative, however. After 230 pages, Djaïz finishes with a list of principles that could tie together such a return to slowness: an acceptance of the “democratic form of the nation state,” loyalty to the “rule of law and public liberties,” a “belief in redistribution and welfare statism,” an attachment to “inter-territorial cohesion for the sake of public power,” and (somewhat more vaguely) a belief in a “mode of sobriety,” oriented towards the degrowth demands which the impending climate crisis will impose on humanity. The nation state is still the most adequate level to organise this slowness. As Djaiz summarises: “There is one central level, the democratic nation, which is a human community tied together not only by a shared history but also by a certain ideal of justice, which defines its political project.”


On top of this we find “a grouping of nations,” expressing a “higher generality superior to that of the nation,” but not logically prior to it. The result is a layered political order, with overlapping solidarities rather than divided loyalties; as the Belgian sociologist Anne Morrelli would have it, Europeans increasingly sense this as a sense of identité lasagne, in which different layers of belonging staple on top of other, more primordial ones. Nationalism need not be exclusive.


Djaïz’s practical program follows from this. Proposing a “territorial New Deal,” he imagines his own version of “subsidiarity” which can delegate tasks to levels best suited for it: food production for the local level, matters of security to the national, questions of fair trade to a more democratic European one. A “circular economy,” built on recycling and repair shops, would offer a more left-wing variant of Macron’s “start-up nation,” encased by a social compact which promises both freedom and belonging and ties together mobile middle classes and more “sedentary” working classes. Such a vision is hardly utopian, Djaïz claims. Once we dissociate spheres of life from a “voracious capitalism covering the totality of human life,” a more sustainable settlement between “capitalism, democracy and ecology” comes into sight: national but not anti-global; slow, but not against swiftness.


It is easy to dismiss such an enterprise from the left. After the failures of Mitterrand’s “Keynesianism in one country” in the 1980s, and the desperate attempts to transcend European austerity with the 2015 Syriza government, the menace of capital flight and sanctions has made the left increasingly wary of nation states. This wariness goes beyond the economic, however. The mode of horizontal solidarity promoted by the nation form also seems to make impossible the bonds which would facilitate left organizing today, committing people to exclusionary identities and driving welfare chauvinism. The nation’s revolutionary potential seems long past its expiry date.


In spite of thirty years of sustained European integration and twenty years of agitprop for “globalization,” nation-states are still at the centre of how humans organize politically: building prisons and waging wars, but also opening schools and driving relief efforts. The number of nation-states also grew precipitously in the era of decolonization. The trend has only continued ever since; for many post-imperial subjects, the road to emancipation had to run, directly or indirectly, through the arena of nationhood. A “banal nationalism” still runs through nearly every political culture, from the Bernie Sanders campaign to the Jacobin imagery of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Left-wing Americans might not celebrate the same revolutionary precedents as the French do; even when criticizing their revolutionary past, however, they inevitably face a national rather than international conversation.


Djaïz is careful in his pro-nationalism. He avoids the reckless and uncritical nationalism of the right, which asserts the nation against the globalized economy without asking what was wrong with globalization in the first place. But he also avoids a facile criticism for nation-states as they exist today, which insists they have been transcended as a political level. Global states are hardly the planners and mobilizers they were during the trente glorieuses, when a dirigiste bureaucracy co-existed with mass political parties to spur a period of labour-led growth. This past indeed is a foreign country. Nonetheless, he hopes that states can reclaim their social mandate and return to their task as caregivers.


There lurks a paradox at the heart of this vision. Djaïz realizes that the opposition between “nation-state” and “globalization” is a false one. Capital has to be made portable for it to be mobile; only states can put the legal provisions in place for that portability. “Globalization,” Djaïz writes, “is no spontaneous development.” Rather, a globalised capitalism requires “ports, airports, sea and land routes, transport infrastructure which can facilitate the circulation of products across the globe.”


The only entities capable of providing capital with this grid are states themselves, who thereby facilitate globalization under their watch. At the same time, Djaiz insists that states have ceded too much terrain to the private sector. More than shaping portability, they have actively retreated from the work of redistribution and governance, granting space to capital where its efficiency is far from clear. It is here that the inconsistency emerges. At one point the state “powerfully” intervenes for the sake of capital, at another the “losers of globalization” crowd around a “weak state.” Is Djaïz’s state in charge but unwilling, or has it retreated and given up its instruments? One cannot have it both ways.


This inconsistency intensifies in Djaïz’s chapter on European integration. Djaïz rightly registers the deeply undemocratic (some would say actively antidemocratic) set up of the current European settlement. The crushing of Greece, the unilateral imposition of austerity programs and the treatment of migrants stand out as symptoms of an institution originally set up as a counterweight to American hegemony or Soviet Stalinism.


Djaïz also correctly tracks back this architecture to the designs of earlier neoliberal thinkers. These wanted to shield markets from the whims of popular sovereignty and saw promising allies in European state builders. Although Djaïz acknowledges real European achievements in the field of antitrust and competition law—a tradition which has spared Europeans the oligopolies which lord over the American consumer market—its “social and ecological” track record remains deeply dispiriting. Countermovements are a natural response to this state of flux, as Djaïz notes: the harder globalization hits, the harder the Brexit will be. Parts of the European system which could better fulfil this role have been side-tracked consistently, Djaiz claims. The European Parliament lacks constitutional initiative. It all too often rubber-stamps decisions made by the Council or the Court. The Brussels press corps then serves as a switch box for Brussels technocracy.


An important question is whether Djaiz’s portrait really does justice to the realities of European integration today. In toto European institutions employ barely more than 20,000 salaried employees. That is the personnel of a mid-sized European city, comparable to Lille or Eindhoven. Institutions such as the Commission, the Court and the ECB might employ a powerful set of experts, but hardly possess capacious and large bureaucracies.


The main energy of crisis fighting has been spent in “intergovernmental bodies” such as the European Council or the Eurogroup, whose constitutional basis is flimsy at best. In the wake of the euro crisis, these intergovernmental bodies have won tremendous powers and began transcending their previous mandates. As Christopher Bickerton and Uwe Puetter see it, a “new intergovernmentalism” settled on Brussels in the last decade, making national leaders and states ever more central to the process of European integration, but tying those leaders and states less and less to domestic constituencies. Brussels is less a bureaucratic Moloch bossing about its superiors than a life buoy for elites fleeing their national electorates.


Bickerton and Puetter’s thesis harbours interesting consequences for Djaïz’s “slow democracy.” In counterposing an older nation state to a new, supranational Europe, Djaïz misses a crucial dimension of the rise of “fast democracy”—the nation state’s wilful abdication against domestic tension. More than a superstate, the EU is best conceptualised as a chain of “constitutional orders” (in the words of Richard Tuck) which lock in certain policy preferences beyond the grasp of national electorates.


Italians have long had an elegant term for these orders—the vincolo esterno, or external constraint. In an attempt to quash radical demands at home which drove inflation, Italian elites increasingly looked to embed their state in international treaties which could tame their working classes. France is hardly an exception to this desire. Mitterrand originally won power on a platform promising nothing less than socialism in one nation, using the French state to redistribute wealth downwards. Once capital showed its teeth, however, and pressure from the left kept mounting, the European Union offered a welcome check on communist passions. Mitterrand side-lined the PCF and “went into Europe.” His party elite constructed the global order of the 1990s, the “Paris consensus” which gave finance open game across the globe. Rather than a globalist invasion, Mitterrand’s austerity turn was national through and through.


Such a counter-history of Europeanization can easily be extended to the global level as well. Rather than an external force pressing down on national governments, “globalization” arises from within national states who find it difficult to reconcile their mandates with the imperatives of capital accumulation. “Globalization” did not force itself into the front door like a burglar. Rather, it was let loose after wreaking havoc inside, only to be better contained by granting it a place on the patio. The demand for speed was first made on the level of the nation state, after which that nation state institutionalized its need for speed on another level. Returning to that very same nation state, or slowing down the process, will thus tend to reveal a far more inconvenient truth: that globalization was built on the carcass of national politics; that neoliberalism’s class politics was, above all, national in scope.


All this inflects Djaïz’s plea for “slowness.” Few would dispute that our democracies – and liberal democracies above all – crave a politics that is less online, less mediatized; a politics which, in some sense, is more patient, boring, taxing, and unromantic than the current attention economy will allow for. More than Weber’s “slow boring of boards” or a romantic liberalism, tedious procedures and deliberation make possible the creation of a collective will. And both from the left and the right, some “nation” is bound to remain an inescapable terrain of struggle for this new slowness. As with previous pleas for a “slow science,” or “slow food” or “slow work,” however, the real question should be where the demand for speed first originated—and which agent might be able to halt history’s course. On this question, Djaïz’s book remains all too mute.


Photo Credit: JIP, Protest at European Central Bank headquarters, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


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