August 16, 2022

Britain may be recovering from a heatwave, but its politicians are already fearful that winter is coming. Only now, more than 170 days since the war broke out, are policymakers realising the potentially catastrophic implications of their gung-ho approach towards Russia.

Just last week, it was revealed that the UK government is preparing for a “reasonable worst-case scenario” over the winter in which below-average temperatures and gas shortages could force authorities to trigger emergency gas-saving measures, including organised blackouts for industry and even households. And this is as energy prices continue to spiral out of control: this winter, the average annual energy bill for a typical household is expected to reach £4,200, or about £350 a month — more than double what households are currently paying and a four-fold increase on the average bill paid just a year ago.

The social consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic, potentially pushing 10.5 million households — a third of the total — into poverty, exacerbating what is already the UK’s worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Yet even when faced with a campaign of civil disobedience, calling on people to cancel their energy direct debits, the government hasn’t been able to come up with anything better than offering households a one-off £400 discount on their fuel bills in October (and a bit more for those on means-tested benefits). Downing Street’s “strategy” to get through the winter seems to be to hunker down and hope for the best.

For all the Brexiteer’s talk of “taking back control”, the post-Brexit political establishment doesn’t appear to be in control at all. They’re not alone, however. All European countries, to varying degrees, are facing the disastrous consequences of what will go down in history as one of the greatest political miscalculations ever — the idea that Europe could weaponise Russian gas supplies without shooting itself in the foot. As the social and economic costs continue to mount, several countries are now preparing for blackouts and energy rationing this winter.

And all European leaders, not to mention the technocrats in Brussels, after sleepwalking into this crisis, seem equally clueless about how to get out of this rut. France, for example, is usually considered less exposed due to its reliance on nuclear energy — and yet, incredibly, nuclear output this winter is expected to be 25% below that of a normal year, due to maintenance and repairs taking longer than expected.

Overall, the entire European political class is proving to be catastrophically ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly complex, interdependent and crisis-ridden reality of our 21st-century world. Indeed, manufacturing new crises, or worsening existing ones, seems to be what they do best. What we need is knowledge, vision, wisdom, and self-restraint — in short, a forward-thinking politics geared towards improving the material and spiritual lives of everyone, including those yet to be born. Instead, what we have is short-termism, ignorance, arrogance, mediocrity, and self-interest — a politics completely divorced from the needs and interests of the majority of citizens.

Observing the actions of our governing elites conjures up the unsettling image of a monkey handling a shotgun — or a nuclear weapon. Indeed, it’s rather terrifying to witness the apparent fatuity with which Western governments today take decisions affecting the lives of millions — from lockdowns to proxy wars with Russia — without any serious democratic debate and discussion.

How did the West, the birthplace of the democratic nation-state, reach such poor levels of statecraft, and equally poor levels of democracy? The two things, it turns out, are connected.

In many ways, what we are witnessing is, in Gramscian terms, an “organic crisis” of the economic-political regime that has dominated Europe, and the West more in general, over the past 30 years. That is, a “comprehensive crisis” — at once economic, political, social and ideological — that lays bare fundamental contradictions in the system that the ruling classes are unable to resolve.

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic project associated with processes of liberalisation, including privatisation, deregulation and wage compression. However, it is also, and perhaps most importantly, a political project: the elites’ anti-democratic response to the ideologically charged and highly contestatory politics of the Seventies and early Eighties. In sum, it has entailed a progressive expulsion of the masses (not just workers but also non-dominant sectors of the economy, such as SMEs) from the democratic decision-making process, in line with the project outlined in the 1975 Crisis of Democracy Trilateral Commission report.

The latter argued that Western societies were plagued by an excess of democracy, which the authors proposed to resolve not only through a reduction of the bargaining power of labour, but also through “a greater degree of moderation in democracy” and a greater disengagement (“non-involvement”) of civil society from the operations of the political system through the diffusion of “apathy”. This second objective was achieved primarily through a gradual depoliticisation of economic policy: that is, through the removal of macroeconomic policy from democratic parliamentary control and the separation of the “economic” from the “political”.

A central feature of this process of depoliticisation was the surrendering of national prerogatives to supranational institutions and super-state bureaucracies — first and foremost the European Union. In this sense, the process of European integration shouldn’t be understood as the result of the machinations of an evil supranational bureaucracy, but rather as a process of self-imposed reduction of sovereignty by national elites aimed at constraining the ability of popular-democratic powers to influence economic policy.

As Chris Bickerton has eloquently argued, joining the EU transforms a nation-state into a member state. Whereas a nation state is a vertical unit, with elites gaining legitimacy through representing the citizens (and enjoying a social connection with a wider section of society that is much deeper and richer than mere electoral superiority), a member state is a horizontal unit, in which elites seek legitimacy and policy direction from their interactions with the elites of other member states and officials in international institutions. This transformation involves a move to post-political, technocratic forms of governance.

There is no denying that this project has been a success, resulting in a near-complete curtailment of democratic participation — understood, in most basic terms, as the ability of citizens to have a collective say on the direction of society. However, we have now reached the point where this project has become too successful for the system’s own good. This relentless process of de-democratisation has resulted in our political elites becoming increasingly captured by Big Business and increasingly insulated from the needs of workers and the economy at large. Indeed, several Western leaders aren’t just puppets in the hands of ruling capitalist elites — they are direct representatives of such elites, such as in the case of Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi. Western countries are no longer democracies; they are plutocracies.

However, as economic policies have become tailored to the interests of a handful of immensely powerful mega-corporations, any sense of the collective or national interest was lost. A small elite was allowed to accrue immense wealth and power, while laying waste to our societies’ workforce, industrial capacity, public services and vital infrastructures, leaving our countries poorer, weaker and dependent on foreign (and increasingly hostile) nations for the supply of everything from energy to food to basic medical supplies.

The interests of this small financial-corporate elite were always at odds with those of the rest of us. And we have now reached the point where they have become so divorced from the latter that they threaten the very survival of society itself — we have, in other words, entered a phase of self-cannibalisation of Western capital. One need only think back to the pandemic and how a handful of Big Tech and Big Pharma companies pushed for measures that made them mind-bogglingly rich, even at the cost of causing incalculable damage to our societies and economies; or how Western oil companies today are exploiting the energy crisis to rake in record profits, even at the cost of driving the rest of the economy into the ground.

And they are able to get away with it precisely because they have effectively taken control of our state apparatuses. At the same time, the depoliticisation of Western societies means that increasingly “apathetic” citizens allow their leaders to get away with almost anything, in a perverse positive feedback loop.

The West’s survival depends on freeing ourselves from the grip of this parasitic, cancerous elite — and of their political henchmen. This, in turn, requires nothing less than a democratic revolution. Many had hoped that Brexit, with its promise to “take back control”, could be the first step in a process of democratic rejuvenation of the country, by making elected officials directly accountable to the British people for their decisions. The Conservatives have betrayed this promise.

“Rather than opening up areas of policy to democratic scrutiny, the Brexit vote seems to have pushed the government in the opposite direction, a determination to avoid democratic scrutiny as much as possible,” notes academic Tara McCormack. This was demonstrated by the way the governing class exploited Covid and then Ukraine to embrace a politics of emergency that permitted it “to carry on avoiding democratic accountability to the electorate”.

And yet Brexit’s promise of “taking back control” — the idea that citizens can and should have a fundamental role in deciding policy, and that the latter’s role should ultimately be to address people’s needs — remains a powerful one. Indeed, it’s arguably the only thing that can save Britain — and the West as a whole. In the short term, this means forcing the government, including through civil disobedience, to take serious action to solve the energy crisis in the interests of the people, for example by bringing energy suppliers into public ownership, which would allow authorities to better control energy prices. In the longer term, it means taking the struggle to the heart of the political establishment itself. If this doesn’t happen, it’s all but certain that the lights will go out this winter — and Europe will enter a new Dark Age.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.