This week Bono was the surprise guest speaker at a meeting of the European People’s Party (EPP), a grouping of European ‘centre-right’, Christian Democratic conservative parties, in Dublin’s Convention Centre. This is a good summary of the reaction, at least in the Irish media (social and otherwise):
"The sight of St Bono communing with world leaders has the power to send a lot of Irish people into apoplectic rage.
As he spoke yesterday, the non-Irish members of the audience lapped up his every word while local observers sniggered quietly.”
It’s no secret that there is a vocal dislike of Bono amongst many Irish people, typically termed ‘begrudgers’. In fact, it’s a reflexive process of antagonisms about Irish culture that really just focuses on Bono as a very obvious source of provocation. I actually watched the 20-minute speech and found it quite interesting, in ways that differ somewhat from my initial perception, but I still have a lot to disagree with. Yet the emphasis on both the supposedly farcical pontificating and the fact that other people were paying attention to our national figure is perhaps illustrative of the conflict of ideas.
The quote that first caught my eye was this one:
"For all this progress, for all these achievements, nearly 60 years after the Treaty of Rome, Europe is an economic entity that still needs to become a social entity,” he said. “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.”
Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling (he repeated it in the speech). The first thing is that I would agree with the first part - the Treaty of Rome being the founding treaty of the European Community and now the European Union - although, and this is the important issue, it’s very easy to agree with. It’s the second part that threw me, because aside from the apparent cloyingness, to my sensibility it seems problematic that the ‘social’ is emotional, while the ‘economic’ is intellectual. Arguably, the economic is irrational and ideologically blinkered whilst the social is the affective, human and ethical element of life that resists categorisation to either head or heart. Of course that is itself trying to make an intellectual justification for something more akin to a gut feeling I had in reaction to seeing that single line. More to the point, I felt when watching the video that he actually sold the line pretty well: it was, obviously enough, emotional. And that’s the lesson of what you get when you rely at first on the cynical, abbreviated snark of Twitter.
The broader issue I have with it, however, is that despite his either genuine or effective sincerity, there is still a problem with making ‘social Europe’ an emotional goal. It is that the obstacles to such a thing are - if not quite cold, hard facts since they’re hotly (though perhaps with still not enough heat in the right places) debated - then a quasi-rational structure of economic integration that deliberately places market outcomes above social goals and protections. It’s a contested area between law, politics and economics that I’m trying to get to grips with myself currently, but the most common and least challenging view seems to be that as the EU was set up primarily if not wholly exclusively as an economic integration vehicle (and thus from that to a progressing measure of political integration) its social side has remained, for nebulous political reasons, comparatively underdeveloped. There is a balancing act with the laws, and the political efforts of the governments and EU institutions, which some see as less fair than others. I myself am inclined to the view that the thrust of the EU as a project of economic liberalism, or neoliberalism (or, in respect of Germany’s role and thus much of the EU’s own structure, the more rule-based ordoliberalism) must play a decisive and active role in shaping the legal-political structure within which any balance has been struck.
Later in the speech Bono turned to the German Chancellor, leader of their Christian Democrat Party and generally considered the most powerful political figure in Europe and its handling of the economic crisis, to praise her for using the term Eco sozialen Marktwirtschaft, or in English, Eco Social Market Economy. Which is of course just the standard phrase ‘social market economy’ with a trendy ‘eco’ added on to reflect the fact that the planet is burning up. My current lecturer in EU law is enthusiastic about the presence of the first term in the initial articles of the primary Treaty on the European Union, although what it actually says is a “highly competitive social market economy”. And while I was unimpressed because, to me, the ‘social market economy’ just meant the compromise between socialism and capitalism, or social democracy and free-market conservatives, which is just a reflection of an historical balance that doesn’t really mean anything one way or the other, it turns out it’s (arguably) worse. What I was thinking of is better termed the ‘mixed economy’, whereas (as I learned from Foucault, or at least as he reminded me of having read in Judt) the term ‘social market economy’ has a specific history dating back to immediately post-war Germany, the finance ministry of Ludwig Erhard and the engineering of Germany’s economic ‘miracle’. For Foucault and other critics of neoliberalism, the social market economy is not at all about a balance between two contrasting political ideologies, but the socialisation of the market into society. And really this is the concept we’ve been fighting, not just some ‘amoral capitalism’ as Bono referenced, whenever people have called for ‘a society, not just an economy’ or for the injection of social ‘feeling’ into a primarily economic project, as in the case of Europe.
From the Miriam Lord sketch column linked above, is I think a pretty effective deflation of that part of his speech (and others):
Bono’s speech entertainingly ticked all the boxes of many speeches made by political thinkers about the EU “an economic entity that needs to become a social entity”.
President Michael D Higgins, among others, has been saying that for a long time.
To be fair to the President, he tends to place more emphasis on the problems of the market itself, and the more complex interplay between it a his native field of sociology - whereas Bono breezily refers to the traditional Irish concept of ‘meitheal’, a sort of community solidarity where agricultural work was pooled and shared, and opposes ‘real neighbourliness’ against ‘red-tape bureaucracy’ in Europe. This is the kind of social Toryism that befits his audience (although the UK Conservatives, true to their distance from the EU, aren’t a member of the EPP and instead inhabit the paradoxically named Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists, presumably in an attempt to stop anything being done in Europe). One could oppose to that the argument of Gorz that the traditional, community-level autonomy is by definition either impossible or practically very limited in the complex, modern society which we inhabit. That is, the spirit of meitheal may live on occasionally - most recently in community responses to flooding along Ireland’s west coast, although characteristically it is coupled with a dissatisfaction in the extent of the state’s response and investment - but the agrarian notion of solidarity is already disarmed by the market and the necessity of state structures. What makes it a perfect image for Bono’s speech, however, is what I refer to in my title - the easy appeal of tradition to conservative emotion, the safe knowledge that the traditional will not - and can not - be expressed in a way that is genuinely radical and threatening to the current social (market) order. Which is what meitheal would be if it was actually applied now, as a concept of solidarity that overrode the economic freedoms (and responsibilities) that constitute much of modern individualism.
At the same time, by making the emotional appeal to a concept that is at least oblique to the established trend of conservative politics as they are practiced and specifically expressed, it feels like he’s calling for a change. That we could change Europe, change the world (on the issue of development which he usually campaigns and made significant reference to here also), if we the citizens, and the politicians, our leaders, just changed our values to be more ‘social’ and less economic. But I’m not convinced that’s the issue at all.