Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

“Under the illusion that the borders are disappearing, they are actually rapidly growing”

Interesting report over at Kosmopolito on a recent lecture by frequently controversial Slovenian lefty intellectual Slavoj Zizek. For followers of the post-Marxian philosopher, there’s probably not much new – but some of his ideas are well worth pondering at greater length, not least for those of us interested in the future of Europe. As Kosmopolito’s Tanchi notes Zizek as commenting,

“Under the illusion that the borders are disappearing, they are actually rapidly growing.”

These borders need not be the traditional lines on maps – they can be cultural as much as any kind of arbitrary physical boundary. Indeed, Zizek has much pondered the concept of multiculturalism, now gradually falling out of favour, as in this interview from back in August. Anti-multicultural right-wingers may be surprised at just how much they find themselves agreeing with this self-professed communist:

I think here we had enough of this multicultural ideology, which for me at least is often an inverted racism – namely for example when people come here – typically multiculturalists would say: “Oh I want to understand how you are different.” No… We need today codes of discretion, not more understanding. I think we should totally object to this liberal blackmail; we should understand each other – no the world is too complex we can not – I hate people, I don’t want to understand people. I want to have a certain code where I don’t understand your way of life and you don’t understand mine but we still can coexist.

Yet it’s not just a racial or national lack of understanding or rivalry that can be the problem – it can also be political. When the people become alienated from the political class, resentment can arise just as much (if not more so) than when fear or mistrust of “the other” leads to rising ethnic/cultural tensions. And it all stems from a lack of understanding on both sides – often coupled with a patronising tone from one or the other. The same tone that tells us that British National Party supporters join through resentment at lack of opportunity and personal failure is used to explain away the “No” votes to the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands (and subsequently the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland). As Zizek noted three years ago, after the French referendum,

The elite proposed to the people a choice that was effectively no choice at all. People were called to ratify the inevitable. Both the media and the political elite presented the choice as one between knowledge and ignorance, between expertise and ideology…

Patronise the people – even if they deserve it – and they will turn on you. Witness the recent kerfuffle in the UK on reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing, where the most useless contestant was repeatedly kept on by the public vote seemingly just to spite the expert judges.

Perhaps thanks to the weapons of mass destruction that never were, though the trend started long before that (Watergate, perhaps?) the world has become a more cynical, distrustful place – and politicians are among the least trusted of the lot. If a politician tells us that something is the case, we the people tend to believe the precise opposite. If a politician – sitting comfortably in their plush houses on their vast, taxpayer-funded salaries – tells us that they understand our concerns, our first reaction is to snort in derision.

And so the borders go up between the political elites and the people. Turnouts at elections drop year after year. More votes are cast for the winner of Big Brother than in general elections. Party membership tails off as even the most politically engaged lose faith and interest. Resentment grows along with populism, as politicians desperately try to re-engage with the public to the extent that Cabinet ministers feel the need to comment on The X Factor in parliament, or simply follow whatever mindless witch-hunt the tabloid press are up to this week.

If we’re alienated from our national politicians, what hope for those EU level politicians, about whom we know nothing?

And then, of course, there’s the psychological borders rising between the people themselves as opinions and resentments become entrenched and no amount of debate can change minds. Non-geographical borders along the purple America model, where resentment grows, and two ideologically wildly different nations live – literally – side by side in the same geographical territory.

Ignore the obvious race and religion based forms of multiculturalism – what happens when mutually-exclusive political cultures begin to arise within a democratic society?

But this post is already overlong and rambling, so perhaps that’s one for another day…


  1. My dear Nosemonkey,
    Your posts cannot be dismissed as overlong and rambling. That is an injustice. Dont forget opin..
    We all love what you say.
    PS how about doing a post on Straight Talking About The EU ?

  2. All this soul searching about why a division between the politicians and the people Slavoj Zizek seems to have answered the question:

    “The elite proposed to the people a choice that was effectively no choice at all. People were called to ratify the inevitable. Both the media and the political elite presented the choice as one between knowledge and ignorance, between expertise and ideology”

    There is no choice, the democratic voice of the people, if it does accord with the wishes the elites, is maligned as populism.

    The answers are all there if you would care to look, instead of falling into the abyss of reasoning concocted by the very elites who refuse to accept the democratic choice of the people, and thus must invent some method or other in order to circumvent democracy.

    For instance why is it only Ireland that is being pressured into holding a second referendum on Lisbon why not Spain, why has no population ever been invited to vote a second time when the vote yes to further EU integration?

  3. Ken, because referendums are just as politicized and flawed as any other form of governmental process. Charles de Gaulle anyone? When participating in creation the constitution of the Fifth Republic made sure the President had the power to enact referendums. He then used them as tools to get the populist policies he wanted that he couldn’t get through the legislative.

    A decision made through referendum only means increased democratic legitimacy of that decision, not necessarily that the decision was a better one. For example, in Sweden 1955 83% of Swedes voted to keep left lane traffic. But less than ten years later in 1963 the Swedish riksdag voted to move over to right lane traffic anyway. It was unpopular, but I bet you cannot find a single Swede who disagrees with that today. Not a single person.

    In the United States referendums are politicized constantly. After living here now for a couple of years, it has just left me with a complete distrust for the entire process altogether. Just recently in California permitted gay marriage through a supreme court decision ruling in favor of equal rights. Religious groups did not like that, so they organized and put up a constitutional gay ban up for referendum. And because they organized their side better, they managed to get it banned. So just because a majority of people voted in favor of banning gay marriage, does that make the decision of removing equal rights for minorities more correct and proper? Absolutely-freaking-not.

  4. That however does not address my point, the basic question was a disenchantment of the voters with a political elite. The very fact that we have such an elitists class which decides and then uses every trick it can to manipulate the outcome it wants, and is then prepared to ignore the voters, is the cause of the disenchantment.

    If as you say referendums are just as politicized and flawed as any other form of governmental process, then my question still stands why are only those peoples who vote against EU integration forced to vote again, why not those who vote “Yes”. One assumes that given your argument you would agree that the Spanish people (for instance) might have made a mistake and voted the wrong way after their flawed and politicised referendum? Or is the argument that a referendum only becomes politicised and flawed after the people have rejected the required result by voting against the elitists plans.

    Of course the separation and insulation of the elitist class by the removal of the power of the voters, is not just exposed in the rejection of unwanted referendum results, but also in the triangulation of policies between our own political parties.

    One of the basic requirements for democracy to exist is choice, the reduction of choice produced by the fact that a very great deal of our government is decided in an external arena and then encased in, if not exactly concrete certainly in the glue of the EU Aquis , has restricted the freedom of political parties to working within EU rules and imposed the agreements of previous governments on future parliaments and on the polices a political party can offer to the voters. Well factually, a political party can offer any policy is wishes what it cannot do is to guarantee that it will be able to deliver that policy once elected, if that policy would mean breaking an EU agreement made by a previous government.

    So the disenchantment of the voters with a political elite is cause by a clear and growing impression that we can no longer control our own government and in reality it makes little difference which party hold power, the gap is cause by a political elite which mouths democratic symbolisms but rejects democracy.

    Of course the political elites are blind to this and so therefore will continue to invent reasons why the public are disenchanted with the political process; people are voting less, too difficult to vote, make voting easier, postal votes, polling booths in super markets etc. No people are voting less because they are realising voting makes no difference to government polices.

  5. Why the sneering attitude to Populism ? If populism means what the people want, why is that wrong in a democracy ? Why do some people feel they are so clever/intellectual/nice/more knowledgeable because their views are not of the majority ?

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