what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The acceptable face of national pride?


The Romanian flags are flapping strongly in the Ploiesti breeze today and the national anthem and male choral music are blasting from the Cathedral’s loudspeakers
as the country celebrates National Day – going back to 1918 when the Romania we know today was first formed out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire.

Pride in one’s country is a noticeable feature these days – although many countries (Britain being a prime example) have very little to be proud of. It was Samuel Johnson who said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” although he was not referring to patriotism in general but rather Prime Minister William Pitt’s abuse of it….. 

 A couple of weeks ago, I discussed Climate Change and the Nation State – the realist case” (2020)  by geopolitical strategist Anatol Lieven whose basic argument I summarised as  -     

-       Climate change has become the world’s number one problem

-       It can be tackled only at a national level

-       At the moment only some voices in the military and in insurance companies recognize the seriousness

-       No real strong pressure is being exerted where it matters

-       Consensus needs to be built

-       That possibility is being undermined by identity politics 

And Wolfgang Streeck has penned an explosive article reminding us that the EU’s commitment to the free flow of labour and capital is a defining feature of neoliberalism and that - 

Strange things are happening in Brussels, and getting stranger by the day. The European Union (EU), a potential superstate beholden to a staggering democratic deficit, is preparing to punish two of its member states and their elected governments, along with the citizens who elected them, for what it considers a democratic deficit.

For its part, the EU is governed by an unelected technocracy, by a constitution devoid of people and consisting of a series of unintelligible international treaties, by rulings handed down by an international court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), as well as by a parliament that is not allowed to legislate and knows no opposition. Moreover, treaties cannot be reviewed in practice and rulings can only be reviewed by the Court itself. 

The current issue is an old one, but it has long been avoided, in the best tradition of the European Union, so as not to wake sleeping dogs. To what extent does “European” law, made by national governments meeting behind closed doors in the European Council and elaborated in the secret chambers of the ECJU, trump national law passed by the democratic member states of the European Union? The answer seems obvious to simple minds unversed in EU affairs: where, and only where, the member states, in accordance with the terms of the Treaties (written with a capital T in Brussels presumably to indicate their sublime nature), have conferred on the EU the right to legislate in a way that is binding on all of them….. 

In his bid for the French Presidency, Michel Barnier has amazed everyone by suggesting that the free flow of labour needs some limits and qualifications

As a sceptic and as a Scot, I have an ambivalent attitude to nationalism – recognising the powerful force it has been in history but still believing that it has its gentler side. The New Statesman ran a good feature recently which did justice to the complexity of the issue.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Words

I do understand that it is a bit perverse of me to try to communicate the essence of effective writing when the majority of my readers have English as their second language - particularly when I return fairly often to the subject. It was, for example, just 3 years ago when I commended almost 60 writers for the quality of their writing – although at least a dozen of them were bilingual (eg Svetlana Alexievich, Oriana Fallacia, Masha Gessen, Sebastian Haffner, Arthur Koestler and Joseph Roth)

But these efforts simply flagged up my preferences – they didn’t try to identify the features that gave the writing its impact. And that’s what I now want to attempt – building on the comment in the last post that “impact” has something to do with not only the style but also the character of the writer. Generally, of course, we are told to separate the two when we are considering creativity - but I think this is impossible 

Let’s start with character – as I survey the various lists I’ve made, what comes through is the breadth of their curiousity and the independence of their thought – indeed their downright obstinacy. They read voraciously across intellectual (and often national) boundaries – and don’t suffer fools gladly.

On style, they generally use short sentences and are constantly on their guard against the clichés and metaphors which so easily take over our minds. We should be in charge of language – not the other way around. George Orwell is the master of this – as his widow put it in her preface to the 2nd volume of “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters”, he was – 

one of the most honest and individual writers of this century -- a man who forged a unique literary manner from the process of thinking aloud, who possessed an unerring gift for going straight to the point, and who elevated political writing to an art. 

The very first essay in that second volume is on “New words” which anticipates the Newspeak his 1984 made famous 

When you are asked "Why do you do, or not do, so and so?" you are invariably aware that your real reason will not go into words, even when you have no wish to conceal it; consequently you rationalize your conduct, more or less dishonestly. I don't know whether everyone would admit this, and it is a fact that some people seem unaware of being influenced by their inner life, or even of having any inner life. 

For anyone who is not a considerable artist (possibly for them too) the lumpishness of words results in constant falsification…. A writer falsifies himself both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, because the accidental qualities of words constantly tempt and frighten him away from his true meaning. He gets an idea, begins trying to express it, and then, in the frightful mess of words that generally results, a pattern begins to form itself more or less accidentally. It is not by any means the pattern he wants, but it is at any rate not vulgar or disagreeable; it is "good art". He takes it, because "good art" is a more or less mysterious gift from heaven, and it seems a pity to waste it when it presents itself. Is not anyone with any degree of mental honesty conscious of telling lies all day long, both in talking and writing, simply because lies will fall into artistic shape when truth will not?

In practice everyone recognizes the inadequacy of language -- consider such expressions as "Words fail", "It wasn't what he said, it was the way he said it", etc.) 

No wonder TS Eliot (who didn’t like Orwell!) wrote (in “Burnt Norton”) – 

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place

You can read the entire poem here and later (in East Coker) a section I use a lot – 

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

Yanis Varoufakis has clearly read his “Politics and the English language” essay from 1946 and I tried recently to understand why Varoufakis writes so well 

What makes Varoufakis' various books such excellent reading is the sheer originality of his prose –showing a mind at work which is constantly active…...rejecting dead phrases, clichés and jargon… helping us see thlngs in a different light..... using narrative and stories to keep the readers’ interest alive…He's in total command of the english language - rather than, as so usual, it in control of him.....

You don’t expect to find good prose in the “Further Reading” section of a book, but just see what Varoufakis does with the task…

 Inconclusion

As usual, words (and thoughts) have distracted me from the intention behind this post – namely to try to identify the characteristics of “writing which makes an impact”. To demonstrate the difficulty of such an endeavour, let me share with you 60 Words to describe Writing or Speaking Styles ….. 

articulate – able to express your thoughts, arguments, and ideas clearly and effectively; writing or speech is clear and easy to understand

chatty – a chatty writing style is friendly and informal

circuitous – taking a long time to say what you really mean when you are talking or writing about something

clean – clean language or humour does not offend people, especially because it does not involve sex

conversational – a conversational style of writing or speaking is informal, like a private conversation

crisp – crisp speech or writing is clear and effective

declamatory – expressing feelings or opinions with great force

diffuse – using too many words and not easy to understand

discursive – including information that is not relevant to the main subject

disputatious - an inclination to argue

economical – an economical way of speaking or writing does not use more words than are necessary

elliptical – suggesting what you mean rather than saying or writing it clearly

eloquent – expressing what you mean using clear and effective language

emphatic – making your meaning very clear because you have very strong feelings about a situation or subject

epigrammatic – expressing something such as a feeling or idea in a short and clever or funny way

epistolary – relating to the writing of letters

euphemistic – euphemistic expressions are used for talking about unpleasant or embarrassing subjects without mentioning the things themselves

flowery – flowery language or writing uses many complicated words that are intended to make it more attractive

fluent – expressing yourself in a clear and confident way, without seeming to make an effort

formal – correct or conservative in style, and suitable for official or serious situations or occasions

gossipy – a gossipy letter is lively and full of news about the writer of the letter and about other people

grandiloquent – expressed in extremely formal language in order to impress people, and often sounding silly because of this

idiomatic – expressing things in a way that sounds natural

inarticulate – not able to express clearly what you want to say; not spoken or pronounced clearly

incoherent – unable to express yourself clearly

informal – used about language or behaviour that is suitable for using with friends but not in formal situations

journalistic – similar in style to journalism

learned – a learned piece of writing shows great knowledge about a subject, especially an academic subject

literary – involving books or the activity of writing, reading, or studying books; relating to the kind of words that are used only in stories or poems, and not in normal writing or speech

lyric – using words to express feelings in the way that a song would

lyrical – having the qualities of music

ornate – using unusual words and complicated sentences

orotund – containing extremely formal and complicated language intended to impress people

parenthetical – not directly connected with what you are saying or writing

pejorative – a pejorative word, phrase etc expresses criticism or a bad opinion of someone or something

picturesque – picturesque language is unusual and interesting

pithy – a pithy statement or piece of writing is short and very effective

poetic – expressing ideas in a very sensitive way and with great beauty or imagination

polemical – using or supported by strong arguments

ponderous – ponderous writing or speech is serious and boring

portentous – trying to seem very serious and important, in order to impress people

prolix – using too many words and therefore boring

punchy – a punchy piece of writing such as a speech, report, or slogan is one that has a strong effect because it uses clear simple language and not many words

rambling – a rambling speech or piece of writing is long and confusing

readable – writing that is readable is clear and able to be read

rhetorical – relating to a style of speaking or writing that is effective or intended to influence people; written or spoken in a way that is impressive but is not honest

rhetorically – in a way that expects or wants no answer; using or relating to rhetoric

rough – a rough drawing or piece of writing is not completely finished

roundly– in a strong and clear way

sententious – expressing opinions about right and wrong behaviour in a way that is intended to impress people

sesquipedalian – using a lot of long words that most people do not understand

Shakespearean – using words in the way that is typical of Shakespeare’s writing

stylistic – relating to ways of creating effects, especially in language and literature

succinct – expressed in a very short but clear way

turgid – using language in a way that is complicated and difficult to understand

unprintable – used for describing writing or words that you think are offensive

vague – someone who is vague does not clearly or fully explain something

verbose – using more words than necessary, and therefore long and boring

well-turned – a well-turned phrase is one that is expressed well

wordy – using more words than are necessary, especially long or formal words

Friday, November 26, 2021

What makes for good non-fiction writing?

This blog has always been interested in “good writing” – by which I mean writing “which makes an impact”. And I’m not talking about novels - much as I may have enjoyed characterisation in the stuff I would read in my leisure time at an earlier stage in my life.

I’m referring to the non-fiction world which has been my focus this past decade. Reference to “writing which makes an impact”, of course, just begs further questions - such as how widely shared is the impact? And what sort of impact? In aggression? In the extent or source of evidence brought to bear? In challenging prevailing opinions? 

Clearly, what makes an impact on me as a white, Scottish middle-class male retiree is very different from writing which appeals to young, black, unemployed and American women. But there should surely be some measure of agreement about what constitutes good writing amongst at least university-educated retirees?

I’ve been concocting one of my famous tables this last week in an attempt to explore that question. It covers the living and dead, young and old, matters of style and of character. At the moment it has 35 entries in which George Orwell figures as, perhaps, the most important although I have always felt that Arthur Koestler was the more gripping writer. To help me on my task, I’m dipping back into Chris Hitchen’s little book from 2002 – “Why Orwell Matters” (Hitchens is naturally on the list!) and have just downloaded Bernard Crick’s 1980 biography of George Orwell (written with the support of his widow) 

One of the things I’m discovering is how difficult it is to try to convey the distinctive feature of a writer’s “tone of voice”. When I googled this I came across an interesting suggestion that there are four types of writing – expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative thus – 

EXPOSITORY; Expository writing is one of the most common types of writing. When an author writes in an expository style, all they are trying to do is explain a concept, imparting information from themselves to a wider audience. Expository writing does not include the author’s opinions, but focuses on accepted facts about a topic, including statistics or other evidence.

Examples of Expository Writing

·       Textbooks

·       How-to articles

·       Recipes

·       News stories (not editorials or Op-Eds)

·       Business, technical, or scientific writing 

DESCRIPTIVE; When an author writes in a descriptive style, they are painting a picture in words of a person, place, or thing for their audience. The author might employ metaphor or other literary devices in order to describe the author’s impressions via their five senses (what they hear, see, smell, taste, or touch). But the author is not trying to convince the audience of anything or explain the scene – merely describe things as they are.

Examples of Descriptive Writing

·       Journal/diary writing

·       Descriptions of Nature

·       essays 

PERSUASIVE; When an author writes in a persuasive style, they are trying to convince the audience of a position or belief. Persuasive writing contains the author’s opinions and biases, as well as justifications and reasons given by the author as evidence of the correctness of their position. Any “argumentative” essay you write in school should be in the persuasive style of writing.

Examples of Persuasive Writing

·       Op-Eds and Editorial newspaper articles

·       Advertisements

·       Letters of recommendation 

NARRATIVE; When an author writes in a narrative style, they are not just trying to impart information, they are trying to construct and communicate a story, complete with characters, conflict, and settings.

Examples of Narrative Writing

·       Oral histories

·       Novels/Novellas

·       Short Stories

·       Anecdotes

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Is Patriotism the Answer?

The discussions about the “limits to growth” have been going on for at least 50 years. Any serious threat to the conventional wisdom goes through several phases - initially ignored, then treated with ridicule. When the attacks start, it’s a clear indication that vested interests recognise they are in danger and need to change their tune. Perhaps the most dangerous phase (from the point of view of those challenging the prevailing consensus) is when the threatening ideas are accepted as the new wisdom - at which point a variety of delaying tactics can be deployed

Something significant seemed to have happened just a few years ago – with Greta Thurberg, Extinction Rebellion and the Green New Deal being straws in the wind. Climate Change has gone mainstream. Even the mass media find it difficult to resist the conclusion that it’s for real..Of course, the world remains divided between those convinced by the science and the “denialists” who share two important attitudes -  a scepticism about scientific claims and a resistance to change. But the Chinese government made the call about a decade ago for a transition to a greener economy – although it’s still a serious polluter. The US government is struggling to get a serious policy accepted by its Congress. The British government talks the talk but is unable to demonstrate any serious policies. 

The books about climate change have been pouring from the press for some 30 years and more – with Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature – humanity, climate change and the natural world” being one of the earliest in 1989. I’ve listed other texts I’ve found important in the reading list below. 

I’ve just finished a couple of fascinating new books which couldn’t be more different – the first Post Growth – life after capitalism (2021) by economist (in sustainable development) Tim Jackson; the other  Climate Change and the Nation State – the realist case” (2020)  by geopolitical strategist Anatol Lieven. 

The first is fairly dismissive of the Green New Deal – the second considers it a sine qua non. Lieven’s book is the more conventional in conducting a sustained argument – Jackson’s is almost poetic in tone and is populated with characters about whom he tells gripping stories. Not for nothing is he also a dramatist!  

The idea of deliberately choosing to slow down economic growth – let alone to pursue “degrowth” – is not one to which this blog has given any serious consideration. So Jackson’s book deserves an exclusive post.

I would summarise Lieven’s basic argument thus -     

-       Climate change has become the world’s number one problem

-       It can be tackled only at a national level

-       At the moment only some voices in the military and in insurance companies recognize the seriousness

-       No real strong pressure is being exerted where it matters

-       Consensus needs to be built

-       That possibility is being undermined by identity politics and the progressive belief in a world without borders

-    patriotism needs to be resurrected by the progressives

And some selected excerpts - 

The social and political danger to Western states is greater in the next decades even than most climate change scientists realize, because the effects of climate change will combine with two other critical challenges for Western societies: automation and artificial intelligence, which threaten the whole contemporary structure of employment, and migration. In combination with white nationalism, mass migration threatens irredeemably to divide societies and paralyze their political systems. Part of the background noise to the writing of this book strongly increased by fears in this regard: not just the Trump administration in the United States and the rise of chauvinist parties in Europe, but the amazing magic show called Brexit, in which a political order once renowned for its pragmatism and common sense transformed itself into play dough before our very eyes.

Populations have become divided in their fundamental understandings of their own national identities: in the United States, believers in a multi-cultural country defined by ideology and defined by multiple identities against believers in a cultural community chiefly defined by a confused appeal to an Anglo-American heritage; in Britain, believers in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Britain as part of the European Union against believers in an independent England defined by its own national history. As the miserable examples of Turkey and Egypt demonstrate, it is impossible to make democracy work when at each election, not policies but the very definition of the nation itself is at stake.

Such fractured political systems will have even less ability to do anything serious about anthropogenic climate change. Unless Western democracies can summon up the will to address these challenges, they will ultimately face a choice between authoritarian rule and complete political and social collapse. Having worked in Russia during the near collapse of the state and society in the 1990s, such a scenario is for me not a futurist fantasy but a vivid memory.

 Some of the Books which have made an impact on me

- Blessed Unrest - how the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice and beauty to the world; Paul Hawken (2007); Beautifully-written history of the environmental movement, with particular emphasis on the contemporary aspects. Very detailed annex.

-  “Storms of my Grandchildren – the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity”; James Hansen (2009). A powerful story of how one scientist has tried to warn us

- Why we Disagree on Climate Change – understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity; Mike Hulme (2009). An environmental scientist Professor takes a rare and deep look into our cultural disagreements – using anthropological insights

- This Changes Everything – capitalism v the climate;  Naomi Klein (2014). This book by the Canadian journalist is written for those who are already convinced about the need for urgent action. Those new to the issue should first read books such as “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Lynas to get a sense of how bad things are. A couple of reviews give excellent and detailed summaries which will help you select the most appropriate part of Klein's book (the link in the title gives the entire text).  The first is here. The second review gives a useful summary of the scientific issues at stake and then of each chapter. Another review gives a more selective summary

- TheUninhabitable Earth – life after warming; David Wallace-Wells (2019) This highly readable book from a journalist who has compressed his extensive reading into a series of short, very punchy chapters can be accessed by clicking the title. 

- Commanding Hope – the power we have to renew a world in peril” (2020) which is one of the very few books I’ve seen which takes the crisis as read - and chooses instead to use our own reluctance to change our habits as the key with which to explore the values and worldviews lying at the heart of the different sense of identity we all have. (I wasn’t aware that Clive Hamilton produced Requiem for a species – why we resist the truth about climate change (2010) although only one chapter of the book seems to deal directly with the question in the subtitle).

Some previous posts on the issue

https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2020/12/commanding-hope.html

https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2020/03/facing-extinction.html

https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2014/07/why-we-disagree-on-wicked-problems.html

https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2019/07/what-is-wrong-with-us.html

COVID Vaccination and Death rates in Europe


 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Stop the World – I want to get off

Yuval Harari famously wrote in 2016 Homo Deus – a brief history of tomorrow (the link gives you the full book) to which LRB devoted an extensive review 

Once upon a time, we accepted three score years and ten as our divinely allotted lifespan; we reckoned there wasn’t much we could do to prevent or counter epidemic disease; we looked on dearth and famine as bad hands dealt by fate or divine judgment; we considered war to be in the nature of things; and we believed that personal happiness was a matter of fortune.

Now, Harari says, these problems have all been reconfigured as managerial projects, subject to political will but not limited by the insufficiencies of our knowledge or technique. We have become the masters of our own fate – and ‘fate’ itself should be reconceived as an agenda for further research and intervention. That is what it means to refer to the world era in which we live as the Anthropocene: one biological species, Homo sapiens, has become a major agent in shaping the natural circumstances of its own existence. The gods once made sport of us; the future will ‘upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus’…… 

The current version of Homo sapiens will become surplus to economic and military requirements. War will be waged by drones and work will be done by robots: ‘Some economists predict that sooner or later, unenhanced humans will be completely useless.’ Algorithms embedded in silicon and metal will replace algorithms embedded in flesh, which, Harari reminds us, is what biology and computer science tell us is all we really are anyway….. 

Wealth will be concentrated in the hands of the ‘tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms’. Some of us will then be as gods: members of a new species, Homo deus, ‘a new elite of upgraded superhumans’ clever enough, and rich enough, to control for a time the knowledge that controls the rest of humankind, and to command the resources needed to transform themselves through intellectual tools and biologic prostheses. ‘In the long run, we are all dead,’ Keynes said. If some of the wilder ambitions of anti-ageing prophets are realised, the dictum will need to be reformulated: ‘In the long run, most of us will be dead.’… 

I remember reading the first 50 pages of “Homo Deus” and feeling that this and a couple of other reviews had told me all I needed to know about the book. I was eager to see what his ”21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (2018) held for me….Once I realised that it consists of a lot of op-eds and answers to his fan-club mail, I decided against reading it. A contrarian article and a "digested read" tend to confirm my prejudice....  

If you can’t be bothered to read these two books of his or a post of mine from last year which tried to give a sense of the basic argument, then you will perhaps find more exciting this hour-long discussion between Harari and Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist whose “The Righteous Mind” I enthused over a couple of years ago.

Haidt start the discussion by articulating a concern he feels about trends in social media, AI and the incredible rate at which the world is changing. It’s a really great discussion and I thoroughly recommend it. It certainly made me realise that I had been a bit unfair to Harari and should certainly persevere with his ”21 Lessons for the 21st Century One of the reasons the video gripped me is because of the obvious respect the two men have for one another. It’s so great to see a serious discussion of ideas 

And if that does in fact grab you, then I would suggest you view a discussion between Harari and the author of another book I enthused about recently – Rutger Bregman’s Humankind – an optimistic history. Indeed I was so impressed with Bregman’s book that I did one of my famous tables summarising the various myths he exposed.

Other Assessments of Harari

A profile of Harari in The New Yorker revealed that a team of eight people supports him in his various speaking and writing endeavours. Doesn’t that risk “groupthink”???

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/24/homo-deus-by-yuval-noah-harari-review from the ever-thoughtful and challenging David Runciman..

https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/a-big-history-of-the-future/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/15/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-by-yuval-noah-harari-review

https://quillette.com/2018/10/26/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-a-review/

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trouble Ahead

Like an underwater volcano, a big issue has been simmering away for some time and arguably showed its first sign of life with the judgement a few weeks ago of the Polish Supreme Court that Polish law trumps European. The issue is the power and legitimacy of the European Court of Justice.

We are told that, in these days of pooled sovereignty in matters, for example, of trade and defence, the question of national sovereignty is of marginal significance - if not an outdated notion. But here I agree very much with the picture painted by the conservative philosopher John Gray who is now in charge of book reviews in the leftist “The New Statesman” 

Brexit was a revolt against globalisation. Asserting the state against the global market is in Brexit’s DNA. Thatcherites swallowed a mythical picture of the European Union as being hostile to the free market—the same picture that befuddles much of the left.

In reality the EU is now a neoliberal project. Immune to the meddlesome interventions of democratically accountable national governments, a continent-wide single market in labour and goods is hardwired to preclude socialism and undermine social democracy. 

Large numbers of voters in the UK favour nationalising public utilities and firms such as the Tata steel plant while supporting stiffer penalties for law-breakers and strict border controls. “Left-wing” economics and “right wing” policies on crime and immigration are not at odds. Both come from a concern with social cohesion. If there is a centre ground in British politics, this is it.

Old Labour occupied much of this space. But it is almost unthinkable that any senior Labour figure should attempt to do so nowadays. 

Almost a year ago, no less a figure than Perry Anderson trained his large cannon on the technocratic core of the European Union – with a trilogy of essays amounting to a full-size book - starting with a 20,000 word essay entitled The European Coup followed by Ever Closer Union

The second of these looks at the origins and practices of the different institutions within the European Union – arguing powerfully that they breach every principle of the rule of law. A useful summary is here. 

And, this week, another major figure – German Wolfgang Streeck in a short article for Brave New Europe – has applied that general critique to the EU’s handling of the challenge from Hungary and Poland. It’s an explosive article – which starts thus 

Strange things are happening in Brussels, and getting stranger by the day. The European Union (EU), a potential superstate beholden to a staggering democratic deficit, is preparing to punish two of its democratic member states and their elected governments, along with the citizens who elected them, for what it considers a democratic deficit.

For its part, the EU is governed by an unelected technocracy, by a constitution devoid of people and consisting of a series of unintelligible international treaties, by rulings handed down by an international court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), as well as by a parliament that is not allowed to legislate and knows no opposition. Moreover, treaties cannot be reviewed in practice and rulings can only be reviewed by the Court itself. 

The current issue is an old one, but it has long been avoided, in the best tradition of the European Union, so as not to wake sleeping dogs. To what extent does “European” law, made by national governments meeting behind closed doors in the European Council and elaborated in the secret chambers of the ECJU, trump national law passed by the democratic member states of the European Union? The answer seems obvious to simple minds unversed in EU affairs: where, and only where, the member states, in accordance with the terms of the Treaties (written with a capital T in Brussels presumably to indicate their sublime nature), have conferred on the EU the right to legislate in a way that is binding on all of them….. 

It was a young Netherlands historian – Luuk van Middelaar (speechwriter for a few tears of the EU’s first elected President von Rompuy) – who let the cat out of the bag in The Passage to Europe (2013) about what he called the “coup” that gave the European Court of Justice its supreme powers in the 1960s. And that was indeed the starting point for Anderson’s essay on The European Coup. Streeck’s article continues - 

Already in the early 1960s the CJEU discovered in the Treaties the general supremacy of EU law over national law. Note at a glance that nothing similar is to be found in the Treaties; one needs to be a member of the Court to observe that supremacy. At first, insofar as the jurisdiction of the European Union was still very limited, nobody seemed to care about this. Subsequently, however, as the European Union set about opening up national economies to the ‘four freedoms’ of the single market and then introducing the common currency, the doctrine of the primacy of European law operated as an effective device for extending the Union’s authority without the need to rewrite the Treaties, especially as this became increasingly difficult with the increase in Member States from six to, pre-Brexit, 28.

What was initially no more than a highly selective upward transfer of national sovereignty gradually became the main institutional driver for what was termed ‘integration by right’, which was carried out by the Union’s central authorities and co-administered by various coalitions of member states and governments. 

Streeck then moves on to make the same point as Albena Azmanova does in last weekend’s Binding the Guardians report which I’ve discussed in the most recent posts – namely that a lot of EU countries are in breach of the rule of law. 

As far as corruption is concerned, Poland is generally considered a clean country (Hungary less so), while countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta are widely known as bastions of business cronyism and venality, not to mention, in some cases, the deep-rooted mistreatment of their minorities.

Indeed, both Slovakia and Malta have recently witnessed the murder of independent journalists, perpetrated by criminal groups connected to their respective government circles, involved in investigations related to cases of high-level corruption. Yet no one threatens to cut off European subsidies to these countries, while the liberal European press carefully refrains from comparing the Polish or Hungarian “rule of law” with those of Slovakia and Malta.

There is reason to believe that this is the case because, unlike Poland and Hungary, both countries pay back by always voting in favour of the European Commission and otherwise keeping their mouths shut. Similarly, political influence over the high courts of a given country is something that EU bodies have good reason not to make too much of a fuss about: where Constitutional Courts exist, they are all without exception and in one way or another politicised. 

Michel Barnier shocked everyone when he put a marker down for French sovereignty which Streeck suggests could help put an end to the relentless push for European integration 

The battle in Poland and Hungary may put an end to the era in which “integration by right”, thanks to its incrementalism, could be treated by increasingly short-sighted national governments with benevolent neglect. For example, some centrist French politicians set to contest next year’s presidential elections, such as Valérié Pécresse (Les Republicaines), Arnaud Montebourg (ex-Socialist) and even Michel Barnier, the combative Brexit negotiator, have begun to show their concern for what they now call French “legal sovereignty”, with some of them, including surprisingly the latter, demanding a national referendum to establish once and for all the supremacy of French law over European law. 

And Streeck concludes with an interesting comment on the real purpose behind the multi billion EC Recovery Fund 

The real purpose of the recovery fund – to keep national elites in power in Eastern Europe committed to the internal market and averse to any kind of alliance with Russia or China – is too sensitive to talk about in public. So it must be shown that money buys something higher than imperial stability: submission to Western European cultural leadership as documented by the selection of leaders to the taste of its elites.

Will Poland and Hungary learn to behave like Romania or Bulgaria, or even like Malta and Slovakia, and thus placate their enemies in Brussels? If they refuse to do so and the CJEU has the last word, another moment of truth may present itself, this time with an Eastern twist. 

Merkel, during her final hours as chancellor, urged the EU to exercise restraint and try a political rather than a legal solution. (Merkel may well have been informed by the United States that it would not look kindly on Poland, its strongest and most loyal anti-Russian ally in Eastern Europe, leaving the EU, where it is fed by the EU so that it can be armed by the US power).

In this context, note that there now seems to be a slow realisation in other member states of the sheer presumptuousness of the EU’s increasingly explicit insistence on the general primacy of its law over that of its member states.