Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Europe: a season of the Apparatchiki | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Over the past year, while the Arab shores of the Mediterranean have witnessed pro-democracy revolts, there has been a democratic setback in the European shores. Of course, no one could be sure that the “Arab Spring” would produce democracy. But everyone would agree that, when it comes to the “Democratic Setback” that has struck Europe, we should be vigilant.

By “Democratic Setback” I mean the installation of unelected governments and, where that is not yet possible, the imposition of policies not approved by the people.

At this writing, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Greece, all members of the European Union, had “imposed” governments. Italy had its first unelected government since Mussolini was hanged in 1945. The new government boasts that its members have never had political experiences, and never tested by an electorate.

Greece has its first unelected Prime Minister since 1974 when the dictatorship of the “colonels” ended.

In Portugal and Ireland, both members of the EU, and in Iceland, not an EU member, new governments were installed after they pledged to carry out policies dictated by forces beyond the control of their electorates.

In Spain, just before last Sunday’s general election, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero was forced to retire from politics at the ripe old age of 51!

Even in Germany and France, supposed to be EU heavyweights, governments have had to change strategy under pressures from outside the democratic system.

By now you might have formed the impression that Europe is experiencing a series of coups d’etat.

By definition, a coup d’etat is always anti-democratic.

It happens when a group of officers use the army, a public institution that belongs to the people as a whole, to serve private interests, starting with the seizure of power. In a coup, the army that is meant to defend the country against external aggression becomes a tool for intervening in internal affairs. Having experienced two dozen coups d’etat in half a century, Arabs know what that means.

In the case of the recent coups in Europe, we are not dealing with military conspirators. The European armies, or what is left of them, have not moved. The coups in question are carried out by a fraternity of bureaucrats and technocrats that, over decades, have captured strategic positions within the decision-making apparatus.

When the military stage coups, they do so in the name of “the nation” which, in that context, is a hollow but dangerous abstraction. The military coup-makers’ discourse is simple: “the nation” is in danger and needs the army for protection! The threat is defeat, the promise victory!

In the current European experience, the coup-makers act in the name of another dangerous abstraction: “the market”. They claim that elected leaders have cannot protect “the economy”, another abstraction, and that politics damages the interests of “the nation”.

Many of those swept to power in recent coups are bankers and/or former members of EU bureaucracy, part of the Apparatchiki of the democratic world.

“The fact that our government is outside politics is its strength,” says Mario Monti, the former EU official maneuvered into premiership in Italy.

In Greece, Lucas Papademos, another banker turned Prime Minister, claims that not being a member of parliament is “a great advantage” in dealing with “dangers facing the nation.”

Monti and Papademos mock the “slowness” of the democratic process and promise to “bulldozer in major measures to reshape the economy.”

The anti-democratic mood in Europe is sustained by the claim that only “experts” could save the world from “the worst crisis since the Great Depression”.

What one might call the illusion of expertise is not new. The claim that government should belong to elites, military, religious, intellectual, or ethnic, is as old as politics.

Plato, inspired by the anti-democratic teachings of Socrates, advocated it in his “Republic” 25 centuries ago. Both men had been involved in an abortive coup led by Alcibiades and influenced by elite rule in Sparta. (In contrast, Aristotle insisted that the average citizen must have a say in all matters.)

The idea of rule by elites also found an expression in Leninism in the shape of “the dictatorship of the Proletariat” with the Communist Party as vanguard. Its Nazi version replaced the mythical “proletariat” with a more mythical “Aryan” race.

Fascinated by the Industrial Revolution, some British thinkers, among them H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley tried to circumvent politics by advocating “scientific solutions” applied by scientists.

In the 1960s, the technocratic elite created the “Club of Rome” to decide long-term policies for the world. The exercise ended as a farce.

In China, among other non-Western cultures, rule by experts created the Mandarin network that made the country the sick man of Asia, ready for exploitation by colonial predators.

In Islam, the quest for “The Sublime City” (Al-Madinat al-Fadhilah), produced a string of secret societies, starting with the “Brethren of Purity” ( Ikhawan al-Safa) in Basra, ending with the Hashasheen ( Assassins) among other terrorist organizations.

The idea that bankers or bureaucrats are best qualified to solve Europe’s problems might have made some sense if one could treat a country as a bank or a company. However, trying to run human societies the same way as banks, companies or groceries is daft, to say the least.

The West owes its historic success to the development of a system that, despite many defects, mobilizes the intellectual energies of a large segment of society rather than any narrow elite. Imposing governments by business elites is as bad as handing power to the military or to philosophers for that matter.

The “elite” governments are likely to fail lamentably. But before they do, they could do much harm by opening new space for anti-democratic populist movements on extreme- left and right. The hue and cry about Europe’s economy being in danger should not make us oblivious of the more important political threat.