The Governments of Europe, by European party grouping.
The Governments of Europe, by European party grouping.

Waiting for a friend in a bookshop in Manchester recently, I sat reading a copy of the English translation of Philipp Ther’s, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa, which appeared in Germany back in May. The English translation, published by Princeton University Press carries the rather unappealing title, Europe since 1989: A History. The German title, however, conveys rather more of Ther’s purpose: The New Order in the Old Continent: A History of Neoliberal Europe, or some variation of that depending on how loose you wish to be with your translation. The date contained in the English title conveys the central European dynamics at the heart of the book – die Wendeder Mauerfall Ostalgie – these obviously German concepts nevertheless point to the demarcation of our Europe from that of our parents and grandparents. What happened in central and eastern Europe in the 1980s was not so much the result of the fall of communism so much as the rush of neoliberal economics into the eastern bloc beginning, as Ther suggests, a cascade which has ultimately backfired on the west. None more so than in western Europe’s most enthusiastically neoliberal states, Britain and Ireland.

Ther is, by his own admission, a social historian rather than a political or economic one (although all good social historians combine all three), and so is most especially interested in the grassroots consequences of policy decisions. His thesis echoes in some respects Tony Judt’s weighty Postwar published a decade ago, and as he explains in the preface to the English edition his new book is consciously building upon Judt’s assessment. Judt’s narrative, of course, ended with a continent still, to a large extent, at ease with itself. The ‘new accession countries’ as they were commonly known in Britain at the time had yet to really make their presence felt within the European Union, the Lisbon Treaty was still in the process of being negotiated, and although the first indications of a looming financial collapse were evident (particularly on Europe’s peripheries) no-one would have believed you if you’d warned of the events of 2008 in 2003 or 2004.  Although Judt’s 1996 essay, Europe: The Grand Illusion, did hint at his fears over the fragility of the project. As he put it then, ‘the likelihood that the European Union can fulfil its own promises of ever-closer union, while remaining open to new members of the same terms, is slim indeed’.

Judt’s essay was part of his thinking around his Postwar project, which is in a sense a retort to Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes published a few years earlier. Judt famously wrote a rebuking review of Hobsbawm’s work prompting something of a spat between the two of them – the old Marxist and the post-Marxist never quite seeing eye-to-eye on the meaning of Europe’s twentieth century experiences. At least that’s what they sought to impress – the reality is slightly different, I think. Certainly, Hobsbawm and Judt believed in a ‘golden age’ of social democracy which overlapped – beginning sometime around 1945 and ending in the mid-1970s (for convenience let’s say 1945-1975). Thereafter came the great unravelling, each country experiencing a slightly different process but ultimately ending up on much the same kind of road. The visible consequences of that neoliberal turn are evident everywhere, both in the rise of populist parties, the pre-eminent tinge of nostalgia that overlays quite a lot of political action, and the emergence of generational conflict as a key dynamic (perhaps more so than class, race, or gender – although that is arguable).

What links Ther, Judt, and to some extent Hobsbawm, is their focus on Mitteleuropa. The experiences of central Europe, inclusive of Germany, providing for better balancing point for the continent than an Anglo- or Franco-centric model. For Judt this could be best sensed in Prague, for Ther more comparatively in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and so forth, and for Hobsbawm the chief capital was always either Moscow or Berlin, although his study is quite as much one of American power as it is European decline and these are always balanced by Washington and New York. Alternative dynamic-models of post-war and contemporary Europe might be posed as East-West as was once traditionally the case, or North-South, Insular-Continental, EU-nonEU, oldEurope-newEurope, and on and on. My own view is that if an arc must be drawn at all, it is a north-south distinction but one that does not necessarily recognise national borders in specific ways (there may, indeed, be a northern edge to the arc as well as a southern one). Scandinavia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern parts of Germany and France, provide a certain sense of how peoples have responded to the neoliberal context. It’s no surprise that in these parts of Europe, the populist right (and to a lesser degree the populist left) has gained ground and social democracy has faced severe challenges. There are obvious exceptions to this, particularly in the case of France and Italy, where the Alpine regions are certainly areas of strength for right-populism, but the generality is sufficient for a blog such as this.

Let’s begin (for a change!) in Scandinavia, for I’ve already addressed nostalgia in the British context on the blog. Nearly 25 years ago, Danish international relations specialist Ole Waever published a famous article on Nordic nostalgia in which he argued that nostalgia for Norden (the north) was indicative of Scandinavian anxiety around embracing the European project. Where once the Scandinavian countries, social democratic, egalitarian, tolerant and fair, had presented themselves as the superior of Europe, in the early 1990s they marched towards entry into the European project (albeit not quite in the case of Norway), embracing other aspects of the continental security system (such as membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace) along the way. Scandinavia remains, of course, divided on full NATO membership with Denmark and Norway having joined as founder members in 1949, both taking full part in NATO’s recent activities in Afghanistan, and Sweden and Finland remaining neutral. They are all active in peacekeeping missions with the United Nations, however. Yet for a certain type of European leftist, unaware of these anxieties, Scandinavia has long been perceived as something of a utopia, even as the subtle (and less subtle) differences between Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, blur into one uniform hygge. This enthusiasm has partly been refuelled by popular television programmes such as Borgen.

That early 1990s anxiety, perhaps overstated by Waever as subsequent scholars have suggested, was nevertheless tangible and has never really gone away. Swedes faced the profound shock of Olof Palme’s assassination in 1986 and the steady turn away from the old social democratic compact (to which Palme had contributed enormously) even by the Social Democrats. By the mid-1990s the effects were clear: Ingvar Carlsson lost the general election in 1991 and could only form a minority administration in 1994. His successor, Göran Persson was forced to rely on votes from the Greens and the Left Party (the former Communist Party) to sustain his government. Financial crisis in the 1990s encouraged the Social Democrats to embrace neoliberal reforms, much to the horror of trade unions. There was a sense of loss on the left, but equally one on the right, as Sweden’s entry into Europe opened up its borders to wider patterns of migration. The construction of the Öresund bridge, which opened in 2000, transformed the accessibility of southern Sweden to continental traffic (previously ferries had criss-crossed between Malmö and the Danish capital, Copenhagen).

New language began to be spoken. If in the early 1990s Nordic nostalgia had been indicative of anxiety about change, about Sweden’s place in Europe, in the 2000s it had taken on a different for. Then a populist-nostalgia began to emerge to provide comfort to those with particular views about the contemporary world and about immigration and cultural politics in particular. From the left came nostalgia for the ‘Good Sweden’, anti-racist, feminist, and all-embracing, the kind of Sweden that Olof Palme had been Prime Minister of (or that young people imagined he had been Prime Minister of). And then there was the right-nostalgia of the ‘Old Sweden’, the culturally and linguistically homogenous northern land, where the most foreign thing you might encounter was an English tourist. This nostalgia-politics said things like Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish), it pushed back against the social liberalisation of Swedish attitudes to sexuality, race, and gender, already some of the most advanced in Europe, and began to recognise that to gain influence in the political sphere it needed to embrace a more formal approach. Neo-nazism simply did not work as a popular appeal. The Sweden Democrats made their breakthrough in 2006, just as the Social Democrats fell into disarray.

The primary focus of the party was, and remains, in Skåne, the region made famous to television viewers and crime fiction readers as the home of Kurt Wallander. Skåne, and the regional capital Malmö in particular, has become steadily multicultural. An industrial city, a port city, Malmö was actually in decline in the 1980s and 1990s before the opening of the bridge to Copenhagen transformed its fortunes. Between 2000 and 2012, the city’s population grew by around 50,000, substantially because of migration from abroad (as well as economic migration from Denmark – Malmö being less expensive to live in than the Danish capital). By the early 2010s, more than forty percent of Malmö’s residents had a non-Swedish background, with around one in every three born abroad. From the point of view of the Sweden Democrats, and the constituency that they appealed to, Malmö was steadily becoming a foreign city on Swedish soil. By contrast Sweden’s second city, Göteborg, which has traditionally been a migrant city – it even bears the nickname Lilla London -, has a Swedish-born population of nearly eighty percent with less than twenty percent of residents board abroad.  It’s not difficult to experience multiculturalism in Göteborg, however. Stockholm’s foreign-born population is around twenty-seven percent; Copenhagen’s a few percentage points less.

If this all sounds strikingly familiar to Britons, it’s because it’s much the same story. Sweden’s neoliberal reforms may have been undertaken a decade or more after Britain’s but they came. And Malmö may seem more interesting a place than Peterborough but its story is not that different. A sharp rise in population, driven partly by immigration and partly by economic necessity, given the city’s relative proximity to London, has seen Peterborough experience similar turns towards the populist right (in this case, UKIP).  What masks the similarity electorally is the First Past The Post system used in Britain, in contrast to Sweden’s elections which are determined proportionally. For an indication of what would happen were UKIP able to wield a proportional score, we need only look to the Welsh Assembly. There is something a little post hoc, ergo propter hoc about relating population statistics to political support, countless scholars have shown that the most profound anxieties around immigration are imagined rather than experienced.  In the Netherlands, for example, this is certainly the case for the Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders, which draws much of its support from rural and suburban quarters. Time and again British commentators, especially on the left, will link low levels of immigration with higher levels of support for UKIP. The anxiety is surely economic, rather than xenophobic. We hope.

Writing in 1994, the Swiss scholar of right-wing populism, Hans-Georg Betz, argued that there are generally two forms – national populism and neoliberal populism. The two are often brought together by populist movements, but they are distinct. The former is more straightforward to analyse and lays stress on national characteristics and the perceived threat to those characteristics from without. Hence the stress laid by the Sweden Democrats on keeping Sweden Swedish. This national populism has seeped right across the spectrum, it’s in-your-face at Labour Party conferences for instance where the Union Flag is everywhere, or in the language employed by Labour’s leaders in Wales and Scotland (viz Carwyn Jones’s The People of Wales) and it’s a key crux of the “civic left-nationalism” employed by the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein. Neoliberal populism, which aims at building a populist case for neoliberal ‘reform’ is more toxic and yet has been extremely powerful over the last three (nearly four) decades. Dismantling of public ownership, remove of workers’ rights, undermining of national healthcare systems, the involvement of private finance in major public infrastructure projects, and so forth. A country that works for everyone, the populists cry, leaving unsaid ‘but from which only a few profit’.

It’s easy to understand why appeals to the nation provide cover for the latter.

Populism, left or right, neoliberal or national, has one real target: the social democratic compact. It has fallen victim to populism all over Europe, albeit to varying degrees. And since you cannot fight populism with populism, if social democracy is to rediscover its purpose and regain any kind of strength, social democrats must be able to find a way to develop a twenty-first century model from the bottom up (that is, after all, how social democracy is generally constructed). The arc I introduced at the outset coincides to a large extent with Europe’s former social democracies and was the core of European social democratic endeavour. One way forward is to overcome our attachment to the national and this is as much an issue for historians as it is policy-makers. Too much history is written a la nineteenth and twentieth century models, that is ‘in the service of the nation’. National histories stop, in general, at the borders; the relational aspects of the nation are lost. Nations, like cities, are always part of something bigger.  As the historian Mary Fulbrook, a specialist on Germany, has written Europe is not just a history of nations and nation-states (or national peoples, I would add), but of regions and peoples and commonalities. The problem with emphasising nations and nationhood is it invites a focus on difference. To take up Philipp Ther again, relationally comparative histories of Europe and Europeans could well even lead to ‘concepts like “German history” or “Polish history” [… becoming] questionable’. He continues:

The best way out of this dilemma is to choose units of analysis that are beneath the level of the nation and the nation-state. […] A stronger focus on regions, cities, or sub-national groups could emancipate comparative history from its roots in national history.

This kind of historical model is to be found in Ther’s new book, which I mentioned at the outset. It’s a dilemma that I’ve been grappling with for quite a long time, and I’ve written about it in several papers with my friend and comrade Colin Howell; finding a way out of the national cul-de-sac is imperative. Yet in certain contexts, Wales being a good example, the academic trend is very much towards the rabbit hole of nation-building scholarship and away from the regionalism that was once a marker of the very best of radical historical writing. Take indicative works like The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century or Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales or Merfyn Jones’s North Wales Quarrymen and Keith Gildart’s North Wales Miners. The reduction of the once capital N or capital S to the lowercase is more than just a grammatical ‘correction’, it’s a state of mind. It implies very clearly that the nation is more significant than the region, that the national consciousness is more vital than a regional one, and that there is little to be gained from going beneath the nation. Wales isn’t alone in this, to be sure, centralising and nationalising dynamics are quite in evidence in Canada too, where regionalist historians (whether they respect national borders or not) are in a constant struggle with totalising national histories. But it is, as I say, a very pertinent example.

It’s not possible to contend with big concepts like social democracy, and to participate in the discussions around its reconstruction and renewal, if we are bound by the nation and an academy given over to serving it. To row away from that, at the present time, is perhaps to row away from security of tenure, but it is a necessary act. To be able to participate critically in the discussions around Europe’s neoliberal anxieties, it seems to me, necessitates becoming a ‘citizen of nowhere’. History, after all, looks very different from the margins. From those margins phrases like ‘the people of Wales’ or ‘the Scottish people’ are not so far removed from the same populist messages that find their way to becoming Bevara Sverige Svenskt. The solution lies in integrationist projects to which a certain degree of ‘national individuality’ is surrendered in order to gain the security of egalitarianism, freedom, tolerance, and a society that actually does ‘work for all’. If that seems like a dreamland, is it really any different from where the European project was heading before it was knocked onto a neoliberal course three decades ago? What if, instead of neoliberalism, Western Europeans had exported social democracy to the formerly communist east after 1989? Would the continental flux of economic migration be the issue that it is today? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Ther reflects in his new book that:

the main pillars [of neoliberalism] – blind belief in the market as an adjudicator in almost all human affairs, irrational reliance on the rationality of market participants, disdain for the state as expressed in the myth of “big government”, and the uniform application of the economic recipes of the Washington Consensus have had grave side effects.

He is, surely, right there. Historians should always be wary of asking ‘what might have been’ but the medicine given to Europe after 1989 has generally not been the right one. It is a continent in dire need of a different kind of treatment, one with less harmful side effects. What was once understood to be European social democracy no longer exists, nor can it be rebuilt without resembling something of an idealised theme park. But we’ve been here before. The social democratic moment was precisely that, a period of time that was built up to by activists and campaigners and grassroots politicians. They began from scratch, eeking out a social democratic alternative to the prevailing politics of liberal or conservative democratic consensus. It was once possible to write a history of Europe under the title Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte der sozialdemokratischen Europa. It’s surely time to start working towards the sequel.