Thursday, December 23, 2010

Market Liberalism and the Grip of Sovereignty in Euroland

I’ve just had a look at this bracing commentary, originally posted at VoxEU and mirrored on Naked Capitalism, on the sickness at the heart of the Eurozone. It clarifies for me an issue that I have been thinking about for some time. Consider:
The Maastricht Treaty reinforced a reliance on market forces to provide discipline and stability. The only collective mechanism for dealing with crises was the Stability and Growth Pact that accompanied the treaty. This was essentially an agreement on sovereign debt burdens, less inflexible than many thought, but the overall framework implied that governments, not financial markets, were the problem – if the rules were properly applied, stability would prevail. The Treaty thus favoured price stability and the fight against inflation over growth, employment, and social policies.

The question for me was how to explain, from a political economic perspective, the intense liberalism on all matters financial imposed by the EU. What makes it a question is that this drive coexists with a parallel “Social Europe” of relatively aggressive environmental regulation, nondiscrimination, mandatory works councils, etc. Because all of this is embedded in a capitalist order, financial liberalism has tended to erode social protection, but why should there be this left hand/right hand problem?

This could be examined through the prisms of class and ideology, but here we see another dynamic stemming from nationalism. The problem of constructing an integrated economic area is one of coordination in core markets—labor, goods, capital. This can be accomplished directly through public and private institutions that explicitly regulate and standardize across the entire domain, which has been the story of the United States since the end of the Civil War. One reason this was possible was the war itself, which destroyed the ideological and political basis for states’ economic sovereignty. But Europe’s “wars between the states” in the last century were not about disunion but hegemony, and their outcome is a cooperative, non-hegemonic arrangement between sovereign nations. There is little political support for making Brussels the primary locus of economic rule-making.

The alternative to organized integration, however, is self-organized integration. By using capital market liberalization as a battering ram, the EU can hope to dismantle, over time, barriers to the single market in all dimensions without a direct assault on subsidiarity. The Eurozone addition, of course, is the Stability and Growth Pact, which is intended to limit the exercise of fiscal policy at the national level, now that monetary policy is safely tucked away in the ECB.

Liberalism presents itself as a strategy for integration in the absence of robust supranational authority. Of course, this aspect of the situation is not walled off from the class and ideological aspects. Financial liberalization became the dominant policy framework because of the political ascendancy of individuals who viewed their economic interests in financial terms, as I argued earlier.

The practical issue remains how to advance European integration on democratic lines, overcoming nationalism from below and across rather than outside (market liberalism). The current crisis should be an opportunity to construct a programmatic counter-vision, but I am not hearing much of this from where I sit.


yorksranter said...

It's an interesting idea. A couple of other points, though: Historical contingency. Maastricht and the SAGP are neoliberal documents because they were drafted at the peak of neoliberal hubris.

Intergovernmental bargaining. Arguably, the Social Chapter and the Stability Pact are the halves of the Kohl-Mitterand bargain. The French accepted integration on Bundesbank terms as a quid pro quo for the SC and for political integration on French terms.

trucker said...

It seems that we are fighting a battle here in the USA to be less centralized while the EU is attempting to create a United States of Europe. We seem unable to take advantage of our union (QE2 excepted), while they attempt to cut off any remaining semblance of middle class prosperity.

Peter Dorman said...


Yes, it's always more complicated. About the France-Germany thing, though, I would argue that the shoes are on the other feet. Germany has a more elaborate social model, and they have a much, much more regulated financial system, with a lot less freedom for capital. Meanwhile, Abdelal (Capital Rules) argues that the French SP was the epicenter of financial liberalization during this period.

You are certainly right, on the other hand, about the need to placate the German love affair with its immutable mark via the S&G pact.