Collapse or Consolidation?

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Andrew Stuttaford's big Standard piece on Europe and the economic crisis offers a lot to chew on, but the essential argument is this: Having created a continent-wide government (and governing class) whose responsibilities far outstrip its democratic legitimacy, the nations of Europe risk reaping a populist whirlwind - which "threatens to push already alienated electorates in the direction of the extremist politics of left or right" - as they attempt to navigate through the current crisis. "After decades of routinely bypassing its voters," Stuttaford suggests, the European Union "may well no longer have what it takes to secure their approval for the harsh medicine and painful sacrifices necessary to bring the EU through this ordeal in one piece." 

I wonder, though, if this passage won't turn out to be the most prophetic part of the piece:

... some glass-is-half-full Europhiles believe that the fact that no country can easily work its way through these tribulations alone will conclusively make the case for still closer European integration to some of the EU's more reluctant federalists. You can be sure that this is a rationalization that Brussels will look to exploit: Rahm Emanuel is not the only politician unwilling to waste a crisis. The EU's policy response to the slump is likely to have two objectives: the reconstruction of member-states' economies and the destruction of what's left of their autonomy.

Back here in the States, a week of non-stop "off with their heads" chatter about AIG has left almost everybody in agreement that the primary political fallout from the crisis will be the revival of populism, red in tooth and claw. But if the worst doesn't come to worst, and Western governments manage to muddle through the next couple years without going the way of Iceland, I think it's just as likely that we'll look back on the crash of '08-'09 as having produced a spasm of kabuki populism, followed by the consolidation of even more power in the hands of elite institutions, whether they're in Brussels or the Washington-New York corridor.

If the Western leadership class survives the current crisis, after all, the lesson they're going to draw from it is relatively simple: We must never let this happen again. And while that impulse could be a spur to greater decentralization and democratization, it's more likely to be produce greater supranational regulation, more expansive bureaucracy, and a more hand-in-glove relationship between big government and big business than existed before the crisis. In theory, one way to respond to a "populist whirlwind" would be to make governments more accountable to the voting public. But in practice, I suspect, the more likely response will be to build stronger dikes and firewalls against the dangerous and unpredictable masses, producing post-crisis institutions that are even more insulated from democratic accountability than they were before.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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