"We know better": of emperors and clothes

The furore over Papandreou's referendum idea is telling - and reminds an Irish audience of the furore over the Irish defeat of the Lisbon Treaty (when we were told to go back and vote again until we got it right). Just to untangle a few of the layers here: - At the simplest level, we are told that those European populations (most) which are hostile to various elements of neoliberalism and EU institutions are misinformed, nationalist, protectionist and so on - claims which would make more sense were it not that support for these elements can hardly be said to be uniformly well-informed, internationalist and committed to an authentically free market. In parliamentary democracy, them's the breaks: if you want the legitimacy of "popular mandates" when you can get them, it makes little sense to object when you lose that your opponents are diverse. It is ever thus.

- At a broader level, while popular support for the EU as such represents a fairly solid majority in most member states, support for its neoliberal elements (such as the various ECB / IMF austerity packages and bailout funds) or for increased powers for its various executives does not, and this has been consistent over the last decade whenever we have had a chance to vote on these matters. The horror manifested at the proposition that Greeks might have the right to vote on austerity packages reflects this reality - that the only way such a referendum could have passed would have been by making it a vote at a minimum on Greek membership of the euro and at a maximum on Greek membership of the EU.

- The barely suppressed comment from "the markets", European elites and the mainstream media is "never mind democracy, we know better". As generally in neoliberalism, this is supposed to be a technical matter in which popular opinion has no place - as indeed for all decisions of substance. In a sense neoliberalism can be defined as precisely this process of removing what in earlier capitalist regimes were matters of public debate from that democratic realm (however limited) and into the province of technocracy.

- But do "we" know better? The evidence hardly suggest so. Like most previous capitalist regimes (Keynesian / Fordist, for example), neoliberalism started with a crisis, had a boom period and is now facing a bust. This is what such regimes are for, and it is no argument for the particular merits of any given one. (In fact, it is at this level that the argument is usually lost, when sufficient groups defect from a particular arrangement, be it from above or from below - see the neat chronicle of the last time in Lash and Urry's End of organized capitalism.)

- In fact the dice are seriously loaded when it comes to "argument": in most of the English-speaking world at least, it is barely possible to get a training, let alone a permanent post, in economics if you are seriously hostile to the axiomatic assumptions which now underpin the discipline (and it has to be remembered how recently these axioms were imposed). Far from the free play of logic and evidence, if you do not subscribe to the relevant articles of faith there is no place for you in economics. The artificial nature of this is shown by how many critics of neoliberalism can be found in less well-policed disciplines (and those which are less likely to be called on to advise governments, have chairs funded by corporate donations or be called on as media experts): in sociology, geography or anthropology, for example, there are heated arguments between defenders and opponents of neo-liberalism. As soon as genuine debate is possible, in other words, it becomes clear that the "self-evident" status of neo-liberal dogma is only self-evident to members of that particular church.

The increasingly difficult balancing act of turning EU economies around within neo-liberal frameworks and without popular consent relies, though, on this assumption that "they" do know better - but it is an assumption which they have done nothing to deserve, and one which is rarely defended. In universities, as in the media or within the political parties which manage the balancing act, the bulk of the argument is achieved by separation: economists here, sociologists there. Commentators on rising poverty here, economic affairs there. Local log-rolling here, voting the way the leadership (or "Europe") requires, there.

The challenge of popular movements is to hold power to account - and to create new forms of power which respond to a democratic impulse rather than line up with the demands of power. The starting-points have to include breaking that separation. Not just challenging the apathy which assumes that "they" will always win, but also challenging the collusion of self-declared progressives who nonetheless line up behind parties and policies that serve the continuation of neoliberalism; holding them to account for the decisions taken by the leaders they support, and pointing this out as clearly and directly as possible.

Doing this also means dropping the shadow-boxing beloved of the Irish left, involving writing detailed economic critiques aimed at insider circles, and starting to focus on how to talk to people who have an interest in listening, and making clear and straightforward proposals which relate to most people's sphere of action rather than that of detailed policy. We have little enough strength; we can't afford to waste it.