The great crises of capitalism, the great social historian Jürgen Kocka recently recalled, were often catalysts for profound reforms of capitalism itself. That could be a hope, and it must be a warning: if the euro crisis offers any chance to come up with some "productive effects", that chance must be grasped now.
Earlier crises paved the way for structural changes, or at least sped them up. Crises brought about the institutionalisation of state regulation, the welfare state itself, and, not least, the Keynesian economic paradigm that dominated for so long. That was essentially the bigger picture. Eventually, however, the "productive effects" once more slid under the thumb of powerful vested interests. That they are being pressed to the wall in a Germany ruled by a Social Democrat-Greens coalition, which deregulated what was once regulated and relinquished the level of redistribution that had already been achieved, is one of the explanations for the current crash-bang-wallop.
Is anything being learned from the debt crisis in Europe? Apparently not. For what is being passed off to the anxious public as crisis management has nothing to do with the "productive effects" Kocka wrote of. In the race against "the markets" to rescue the euro, governments are only proving where power truly lies. Rather than tackle the causes of the economic and political crisis, those causes are being explained away as the solution. What is still left to the state is that, since 2008, it has had to bear the social burdens of a private financial crisis. And no sooner had the public budgets been saddled with the cost of propagating private wealth than another diet was prescribed to cure the disease now called the "crisis of state".
If the euro fails...
With the crisis the German principle of the "debt brake" has spread throughout Europe. Thanks perhaps to the virtues of the famously thrifty Swabian housewife? Not at all. "What we must not do," said Chancellor Merkel, "is destroy the trust of investors along the way." This reveals where her loyalties lie. And it illustrates what the European debate has been reduced to: a debate about saving money, about preserving claims to assets, about preserving competitiveness. Whenever someone demands more "passion for Europe", the call ultimately comes down merely to sanctions for enforcing budgetary discipline, rules for sovereign defaults and the like. What's more, it can't hide the coalition's politically motivated squabbles over European policy. That parliament will in future be more closely involved in decisions on rescuing the euro is itself still no answer to the question of what the deputies will be rescuing.
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"If the euro fails, Europe fails", the chancellor has declared and so unleashed on to the world a threat that will have the same impact on the MPs of the governing parties as it will on small savers and benefit recipients, workers and students, doctors and artists, retirees and housewives. The sentence at best expresses only half the truth. For the foundations of a better Europe are being destroyed – a Europe that, in the dispute over the Lisbon treaty, was at least open to debate: one that stood for social standards, for enforceable fundamental rights. Whoever wants to save Europe, with more in mind than an elitist project thought up purely for economic interests – with its democracy deficit, tax competition and social dumping – must now stand up to the "saviours", Merkel, Sarkozy and co.
This is necessary on the one hand because, through these very crisis-management decisions, the future EU constitutional reality is already being created. On the other hand, it will not be so easy, since a "no" to the rescue course from a united society can be all too easily confused with the eurosceptic populism that is currently spreading through that same society. These mistaken critics of Europe have found their "central organ" in the tabloid Bild; what they still lack is the cover of a political party.
According to a recent poll, two thirds of EU citizens believe that the single market has benefited only large corporations. Half believe that the European status quo has debased working conditions and that the current state of political integration brings nothing for the disadvantaged. That says a lot about the character of the Europe that Merkel and others want to save. And yet it would be wrong to completely abandon the notion immediately and leave the field to those that see the way out in Deutschmarks, loss of solidarity and national narrow-mindedness.
What's at stake is no less that this: either the euro crisis will be solved "from above" and will lead to an EU regime of authoritarian austerity, which will restrict room for manoeuvre for policy-making on the ground and reinforce the centrifugal social forces away from the European ideal, or pressure "from below" will force governments to correct their course.
An advertising campaign by the labour unions will not be enough for that. No crisis has ever called up "productive effects" through appeals alone. It always needs, as Kocka reminds us, a critique of capitalism, political commitment and social mobilisation. The criticism has already been splashed all over the features pages of newspapers. The realisation that this is too little has not yet dawned.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer
An English translation of this article first appeared in the Guardian's Comment Network in collaboration with Presseurop.