Thursday, December 6, 2018

Italy, the EU, and the Fall of the Roman Empire - ALASTAIR CROOKE

The EU leadership is trying to contain a crisis that is emerging at increasing speed: this challenge comprises the rise of contumacious states (i.e. the UK, Poland, Hungary and Italy), or of defiant, historic ‘cultural blocs’ (i.e. Catalonia) – all of whom are explicitly disenchanted with the notion of some coerced convergence towards a uniform EU-administered ‘order’, with its austere monetary ‘disciplines’. They even dismiss the EU’s claim to be, somehow, a part of a greater civilizational order of moral values.
If, in the post-war era, the EU represented an attempt to escape the Anglo-American hegemony, these new defiant blocks of ‘cultural resurgence’ which seek to situate themselves as interdependent, sovereign ‘spaces’ are, in their turn, an attempt to escape another type of hegemony: that of an EU administrative ‘uniformity’.
To exit this particular European order (which it originally was hoped, would differ from the Anglo-Americanimperii), the EU nevertheless was forced to lean on the latter’s archetypal construct of ‘liberty’ as empire’s justification (now metamorphosed into the EU’s ‘four freedoms’) on which the EU strict ‘uniformities’ (the ‘level-playing-field’, regulation in all aspects of life, tax and economic harmonization) have been hung. The European ‘project’ has become seen, as it were, as something that hollows out distinct and ancient ‘ways-of-being’.
Indeed, the very fact of their being attempted, at different levels, and in distinct geographical cultural regions, these assays indicate that that EU hegemony has already weakened to the point that it may not be able fully to hinder the emergence of this new wave. What is at stake precisely for the EU, is whether it can succeed to slow down, and curb in every way, the emergence of this process of cultural re-sovereigntisation, which of course, threatens to fragment the EU’s vaunted ‘solidarity’, and to fragment its matrix of a perfectly regulated customs union and common trade area.
It was Carl Schmitt – the political philosopher – however, who warned strongly against the possibility of what he called a negative katechon accelerator. This would seem to apply – exactly – to the situation in which the EU presently finds itself. This was a notion, held by the ancients, that historical events often have a ‘backstage’ contrarian dimension – that is to say that some given ‘intent’ or action (by say, the EU), may end upaccelerating precisely those processes which it was meant to slow down or to halt. For Schmitt, this explained the paradox through which a ‘braking action’ (such as the one being undertaken by the EU) may actually reverse itself, in an unwanted acceleration of the very processes the EU intends to oppose. Schmitt called this an ‘involuntary’ effect, since it produced effects opposed to the original intent. For the ancients, it simply reminded them that we humans often are merely history’s objects, rather than its causal subjects.
It is possible that the ‘braking action’ imposed on Greece, on Britain, on Hungary – and now on Italy – may precisely slide towards Schmitt’s Katechon. Italy has lingered in economic limbo for decades: Its new government feels obliged to relieve, in some way, the accumulated economic stresses of past years, and to try to re-kindle growth. But the state has a high level of debt to GDP, and the EU insists that Italy must endure the consequences: it must obey ‘the rules’.
Professor Michael Hudson (in a new book) explains how the EU’s ‘braking action’ in respect to Italian debt, represents a certain European strand of psychic rigidity that totally ignores historical experience, and may precisely result in Katechon: the opposite of what is intended. Interviewed by John Siman, Hudson says:
“In ancient Mesopotamian societies, it was understood that freedom was preserved by protecting debtors. A corrective model actually existed and flourished in the economic functioning of Mesopotamian societies, during the third and second millennia B.C. It can be termed the Clean Slate amnesty … It consisted of the necessary and periodic erasure of the debts of small farmers — necessary because such farmers are, in any society in which interest on loans is calculated, inevitably subject to being impoverished, then stripped of their property. and finally reduced to servitude … by their creditors.
[And was necessary too, as a] constant dynamic of history has been the drive by financial elites to centralize control in their own hands and manage the economy in predatory, extractive ways. Their ostensible freedom [comes] at the expense of the governing authority, and the economy at large. As such, it [stands as] the opposite of liberty – as conceived in Sumerian time …
So it was inevitable [in later centuries], that in Greek and Roman history, increasing numbers of small farmers became irredeemably indebted, and lost their land. It likewise was inevitable that their creditors amassed huge land holdings and established themselves in parasitic oligarchies. This innate tendency to social polarization – arising from debt unforgiveness – is the original and incurable curse on our post-eighth-century-B.C. Western Civilization, the lurid birthmark that cannot be washed away, or excised.
Hudson argues that the long, decline and fall of Rome begins, not as Gibbon had it, with the death of Marcus Aurelius, but four centuries earlier, following Hannibal’s devastation of the Italian countryside during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.). After that war, the small farmers of Italy never recovered their land, which was systematically swallowed up by the prædia, the great oligarchic estates, as Pliny the Elder observed. [Of course, today it is small and medium sized Italian businesses that are being swallowed up by oligarchic, pan-European corporations.]
But among modern scholars, as Hudson points out, “Arnold Toynbee is almost alone in emphasizing the role of debt in concentrating Roman wealth and property ownership” (p. xviii) — and thus in explaining the decline of the Roman Empire …
“Mesopotamian societies were not interested in equality,” he told his interviewer, “but they were civilized. And they possessed the financial sophistication to understand that, since interest on loans increases exponentially, while economic growth at best follows an S-curve, this means that debtors will, if not protected by a central authority, end up becoming permanent bondservants to their creditors. So Mesopotamian kings regularly rescued debtors who were getting crushed by their debts. They knew that they needed to do this. Again and again, century after century, they proclaimed ‘Clean Slate’ Amnesties.”
The EU has punished Greece for its profligacy – and is set to punish Italy if it flaunts EU fiscal rules. The EU is attempting what Schmitt termed a ‘breaking action’, to maintain its hegemony.
This is however, truly a case of the EU seeing the ‘mote’ (speck) in Italy’s eye, whilst ignoring the ‘beam’ in its own eye. The Economic Cycle Research Institute’s Lakshman Achuthan writes:
“The combined debt of US, the Eurozone, Japan and China has increased more than ten times as much as their combined GDP, over the past year. It’s remarkable that the global economy – slowing in sync, despite soaring debt – finds itself in a situation reminiscent of the Red Queen Effect. As the Red Queen says to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”.
But that – running faster, taking on more debt – can only, in the end, be resolved with a major default (or through inflating the debt away). Look at the US: its GDP is growing at 2.5%; the US Federal debt is at 105% of GDP; the US Treasury is spending $1.5 billion on interest per day, and debt is growing at 5-6% of GDP. It is not sustainable.
Demands by Greece and Italy for debt relief may be regarded by some as special pleading, in the wake of past economic mismanagement; but Sumerian and Babylonian demands were based not on such – but rather, on a conservative tradition grounded in rituals of renewing the calendrical cosmos and its periodicities, Hudson tells us. The Mesopotamian idea of reform had ‘no notion’ of what we would call ‘social progress’. Instead, the measures the king instituted under his debt ‘jubilees’ were measures intended to restore a ‘backstage’, underlying order in society, or maat. “The rules of the game had not been changed, but everyone had been dealt a new hand of cards”.
Hudson notes, “the Greeks and the Romans replaced the cyclical idea of time and societal renewal, with that of linear time” [with convergence toward an ‘End Time’]: “Economic polarization became irreversible, not merely temporary” – as the idea of renewal became lost. Hudson might have added that linear time, and the loss of the imperative of dismemberment and renewal, has played a major role in underpinning all of Europe’s universalist projects of a linear itinerary towards human transformation (or, Utopianism).
This is the essential contradiction: that ineluctable economic divarication and polarization is transforming Europe into a continent torn by unresolved internal contradiction. On the one hand it castigates Italy for its debts, and on the other, it has been the ECB which has pursued interest rate ‘repression’ into negative territory, and has monetized debt to the equivalence of one-third of Europe’s global output. How can the EU not have expected banks and businesses not to have loaded up on ‘positive-carry’ debt? How can they have expected Banks not to have inflated their balance sheets with ‘free debt’ to the point of becoming ‘too big to fail’?
The global explosion of debt is a macro problem that vastly transcends the microcosm of Italy. Like the ancient Roman Empire, the EU has atrophied in its ‘order’ to become an obstacle to change, and, with no alternative, but to hold tight to a ‘braking action’ that will ultimately produce effects, completely at odds to the original intent (i.e. involuntary, negative Katechon).