The European Union and the rhetoric of immaturity

The EU’s infantalisation and animalisation of individual members is not surprising explains author.

First General Strike Of 2012 Cripples Greece
"The leadership of the EU thinks that Greek people are, collectively, childish enough to require adult supervision to ensure they spend the so-called bailout package in the most responsible way possible," says author [GALLO/GETTY]

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain – More than two hundred years after the death of Immanuel Kant, the question of political enlightenment is still a hot issue in Europe. What does it take to attain both individual and collective autonomy and the capacity for self-governance? Who has managed to throw away the shackles of “self-incurred immaturity”, as Kant famously put it, and to be in full control of oneself, as well as of one’s political state?

The European Union operates on the assumption that certain member countries, with excessive amounts of unsustainable sovereign debt, are not as enlightened as others. Greece, for instance, has been submitted to a series of humiliations, including proposals for the EU to take direct control of its state budget. On February 16, 2012, the head of the Eurogroup Jean-Claude Juncker, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the implementation of austerity measures in Greece is in need of “surveillance” and “tighter oversight”. In other words, the leadership of the EU thinks that Greek people are, collectively, childish enough to require adult supervision to ensure that they spend the so-called bailout package in the most responsible way possible.

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The tendency to infantalise select member states is in line with their animalisation, evident in the insulting abbreviation of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain in the word PIGS, neither as human nor as rational as the rest of the EU countries. Throughout Western philosophy, both children and animals, with their capricious wills, have been considered deficient from the standpoint of fully developed rational adults and, hence, in need of training, education, and disciplining. The current austerity measures are, in fact, a version of collective punishment, inflicted not so much to control spending and improve economic performance (all indicators clearly show that the economic conditions are worsening in countries where such measures have been implemented), but to force the vast majority of citizenry into submission, poverty, and willingness to work for absurdly low wages. Following the logic of Christianity, to which Kant also undeniably subscribed, this veritable collective self-sacrifice would serve as the motor of progress, if not of full humanisation, when it comes to childish or animal-like nations.  

The historical process we are going through is not comparable to the Great Depression but, rather, to the transition from the Speenhamland System (1795) to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 in England, when earlier welfare provisions were repealed in favour of legislation that endeavoured to convert the British poor into “hungry animals”. The new laws purposefully utilised hunger as a disciplinary mechanism to force people to work for meager wages. As Joseph Townsend put it in his Dissertation, the ideological cornerstone of the 1834 Act:

Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse. In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them [the poor] on to labour; yet our laws have said they shall never hunger […] [L]egal constraint is attended with much trouble, violence, and noise […] whereas hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but as the most powerful natural motive to industry and labour, it calls for the most powerful exertions. (Quoted in K. Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1957, p. 113.)

Fast forward to 2012, and the shameful efforts to reduce wages in the name of economic competitiveness through increased taxation and cuts in Greece, Portugal, and a number of other EU countries sound like a distant echo of 1834. Then, like now, whole social groups and political-economic classes were de-humanised, treated as animals or children to be pacified through the physiological mechanism of starvation. The exacted fiscal discipline, which entails, among other things, shocking cuts to pensions and unemployment benefits, is the kind of disciplining that lacerates the entire body politic in the name of calculative rationality and maximisation of efficiency – the key ideals of “enlightened” thought. (We would not be surprised to learn that, in the aftermath of passing new Poor Laws in the nineteenth century, England erupted into riots, just as Greece did in the twenty-first century, after the approval of the new bailout agreement by its Parliament.)

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The infantalisation and animalisation of entire nations, for course, is nothing new for Europe that has had a long tradition of portraying itself in terms of the beacon of humanity and that has invariably resorted to the idea of its “civilising mission” throughout it colonial conquests and expansions. Now, almost four decades after the last European countries have withdrawn from the colonies overseas, the same rhetoric is being turned inward, retracing the new political economic continental rift between the North and the South of Europe. Exploitation is the one constant that remains after this shift: exorbitant interest rates and repayment conditions attached to the bailout package will make sure that the debtor countries organise their economies around the need to service their debt for the foreseeable future.   

The bitter irony, however, is that the demands for fiscal restraints and rational self-control in the economic realm are posed before governments but not before multinational corporations, banks, or hedge funds. Indeed, the oversight of these economic actors has been gradually reduced, resulting in the global economic crisis, for which ordinary citizens are now expected to pay with their very livelihoods. Irresponsible gambles with derivatives and other nonexistent goods on the global markets do not fall under the heading of unenlightened immaturity, while overspending meant to improve social services, healthcare, and safety nets is seen as irrational. The self-professed guardians of the European legacy fall far short of the Kantian ideal they tout. It is now time to turn the rhetoric of immaturity against them, so as to reveal the double standards and the capriciousness of their logic.  

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. Most recently, he co-edited, with Patricia Vieira, the collection Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (2011). His website is