European Union

Corbyn can kick off a revolution among Europe’s political elites – an interview with Michael Hartmann

Even amidst the quagmire of Brexit, the 2017 upturn in the UK Labour Party could serve as a blueprint for social change across Europe.

Michael Hartmann is a German sociologist and political scientist. During his academic career he has analysed the transformation of European and global elites. He spoke to Alexander Damiano Ricci about 30 years of changes in the European ruling class: from Thatcher to Corbyn, from Podemos to Syriza, from the Eurosceptics to Maastricht.

Professor Hartmann, what is the elite?

The elite is comprised of people who have the ability to significantly influence social developments thanks to their institutional position or economic status. More specifically, elite representatives are members of the Government, leading profiles within the public administration and the judiciary of a country, as well as chief executive officers of large national companies. Specific people working in the media sphere can also be brought into the picture.

How many people make up the elite of a country?

About 2000 people.

How accessible is the elite?

It really depends on which elite-branch and country we are talking about. For instance, in Germany, 75% of the chief economic officers who are part of the economic elite stem from the richest 4% of the population. Among German political elites, on the other hand, the figure drops down to 50%. In France the numbers are slightly different and rise to 90 and 60%, respectively. This implies, on the one hand, that the economic elite is more exclusive than the political one, generally speaking. On the other hand, it tells us that France has more “exclusive” features compared with Germany.

In recent years there has been much talk of the influence of the ‘ordoliberal’ economic theory on European elites. Would you agree with that?

Ordoliberalism is a theoretical paradigm rooted in the German political elite. The neoliberal Anglo-Saxon paradigm, on the other hand, continues to be the reference among economic elites, in general. Anyhow, concerning the fundamental choices of economic policy, such as those relating to taxation and fiscal policies, both doctrines claim that taxes must be lowered.

Can you describe the evolution of European elites over the last decades?

We observed the last significant turn within elites when Thatcher took power in the UK. More specifically, at that time within the British Conservative Party the neoliberal paradigm gained traction. The transition was accompanied by a fully fledged shift in the composition of the Government’s staff. If, before Thatcher, the Labour government featured 30% of people stemming from the upper bourgeoisie, that same number reached the staggering proportion of 80%. From an ideological point of view, all other European countries subsequently followed that paradigm shift.

Today, in the UK, Corbyn is driving a new transformation. Can the latter be understood as another historical structural change of the elites?

Definitely. And, by the way, it is not a coincidence that this new change is occurring in Thatcher’s country. Several generations of British citizens experienced the consequences of neoliberal policies. The increase in university fees with the resulting indebtedness of younger generations, the crisis in the real estate market and the phenomenon of “zero hour” contracts are significant examples. But now the “zeitgeist” has changed. And Corbyn says: “For the many, not the few” …

Credit: Flickr/R Barraez D´Lucca. Some rights reserved

Is there a massive dose of populism in Corbyn’s rhetoric and strategy?

No. Corbyn grasped “the” thing: there is a feeling that for 35 years politics has operated exclusively in the interests of wealthier classes.

Using your analytical lenses, thanks to Corbyn, the British political elite could change with the next election. But not the economic one …

That’s right. And the latter will lead a fierce opposition to Corbyn. However, the Labour leader can count on the support of social movements, the grassroot and intermediate levels of his Party, the trade unions and, last but not least, significant chunks of the public administration. And, of course, Brexit divided the economic elite.

What do you mean?

Brexit is a symptom of the poor cohesion within the British economic elite. If compared to other economic elites in Europe, the former is the only one that has undergone a massive process of internationalisation. This dynamic created a gap between the economic elite and the conservative political ruling class.

Will Corbynism also affect other countries in Europe?

Yes, there are mechanisms of imitation at play.

Yet, that imitation process did not happen if we look at the establishment of Podemos for example…

Podemos has to be understood as a political phenomenon strictly related to the Spanish real estate crisis of the late ’00s.

Not even Syriza delivered change at a European level …

In that case the German elite wanted to show that there could not be an alternative to the status quo. A strategy that could not be used in Spain at the height of the crisis: European political elites relied upon the ability of Rajoy to deal with social upheavals.

Yet, speaking of smaller countries, Portugal managed to establish an alternative …

… Which, with all due respect, does not affect the European public debate.

The point is, why should the United Kingdom become a model? In the end, it just decided to leave the European Union.

The United Kingdom has historically been a point of reference for anybody interested in politics. Moreover, a disruptive change in one of the main European social democratic parties cannot go unnoticed.

In fact, it also happened with Tony Blair and the ‘Third Way’…

Of course, the years of Schroeder bear witness. Now instead, especially for the young SPD levers, Corbyn is “the” model.

What about Schulz and the rest of the national SPD leadership?

Only some local representatives overtly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn.

So there will be no substantial changes in German social democracy, thanks to changes in the Labor party in the short term?

I don’t think so.

Earlier this year, after the German general elections, rumours spread about an internal struggle within the German left-wing party, Die Linke. What’s going on?

First of all, it makes no sense to talk about a crisis within Die Linke. Secondarily, the point is that the left has to live with a substantial mutation of its electorate. Leftist parties attract young people with high levels of education, not the victims of the economic system. This truth holds for anyone: Die Linke, Sanders in the US, or Corbyn in the UK. And it creates disruptions.

With all due respect for leftist parties, this is not good news …

Subordinate classes want to see a change. But for years the left did not exceed the 10% threshold. That’s a fact. As a result, nowadays voters opt for a “scandalous” choice like the AfD (Alternative for Germany), sending a signal to the system.

In an interview, you said that elites hold the main responsibility for the crisis. Are you a populist?

No. Yet, populism sheds light on real problems. Some people think that ordinary people get duped by populists.

Would you argue against that?

People are able to assess their living conditions better than anyone else. And the variations of the latter represent the benchmark for judging economic and social transformations at large.

Still, why would elites be the main culprits of the crisis?

They are, because, at any level – political, economic, administrative, judicial and in the media – they have made sure that the living conditions of the majority of the population have remained unchanged or worsened.

I insist. You are giving a few thousand people responsibility for the living conditions of millions of citizens. How can you claim that?

Because we are talking about people who, by definition, have the ability to “significantly influence” economic and social changes.

Can you give us some concrete examples?

The best example is still the setup of fiscal policies. Today we are obsessed by the goal of achieving a budget balance. However, there are two options to get there: spend less and cut welfare services, or use the tax lever to recover resources where they are accumulated, that is to say among large companies and wealthy classes.

So what?

The second road is never traveled. Moreover, there are narrow circles of people, the elites precisely, who have the last word about it.

That’s not true: political decisions are the result of a process …

This does not mean that the final decision is not taken by a few people.

That’s why we have intermediate bodies that can tackle these decisions and oppose them.

Too bad that the weakening of trade unions was, in many cases, a goal of the very same elite.

Nowadays, in response to global neoliberalism, political forces across Europe are increasingly discussing the return to a sort of economic patriotism. Do you think that would be the right solution?

No. Some issues need to be managed at a continental level. It is necessary to remain in a European framework somehow. But it is true that the national level remains the relevant playground for assessing the social effects of policies.

For some, however, the problem relies on “Brussels”…

Even today, contrary to what many political parties are ready to admit, the national level holds great autonomy. Again, fiscal policy remains a national instrument. The latter tool can be used to counteract capital flight or, for instance, implement redistributive policies.

Too bad there is the Maastricht Treaty in the way. Or are you saying that the latter does not count for anything?

Significant redistribution policies can be implemented within the 3% deficit rule. Secondly, the Maastricht ceiling can be overcome. Schroeder showed it first in early 00’s.

The ECB at dusk. Flickr/Christian Dembowski. Some rights reserved

Should Italy do the same today?

Of course, Italy is far too important for the EU. Nobody would risk letting the country go away. That’s why, a lot of budgetary flexibility will be granted to Rome. After all, the Commission did the same with France. At the same, time, I do not believe that a majority of Italian citizens would favour an exit from the Union or the Euro.

But don’t you think that an “Ital-exit” would represent a quicker way to solve the crisis?

No, there is no need for that. It would suffice that Italy, France, Germany and Spain implement coordinated progressive policies at the national level.

Too bad that a part of the Italian population thinks that Berlin operates only in the German national interest. In other words, some do not see enough political will for a change in Germany. By virtue of this immobility even people on the left have started talking about leaving the Euro.

The exit from the Common currency area does not solve the problems, let alone the dependence on Germany. When Mitterrand, during his first government, tried to make economic policies in the French interest, there was no Euro around. Nevertheless, there was a point of reference: the German D-Mark, an economically and politically strong and binding currency, as much as the Euro is today.

Yet, national authorities could de-valuate at will restoring competitivity.

That’s true, but the German central bank still remained the point of reference. It was France that called for the Euro, with the aim to tie the hands of the Bundesbank, not vice versa. We might argue if that worked out, but a come back of national currencies is an illusion, because the latter does not lead to decreasing German economic power.

Could it loosen the political influence of Germany?

The failure of the negotiations between the CDU, the FDP and the Greens in the context of the so called “Jamaica” coalition, shows that German political power is crunching. If Angela Merkel fails to establish herself at home, she will also have a hard time at the European level. It means that there will be opportunities for a change. Furthermore, the German political elite will have to react to the transformations led by Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Macron in France.


That’s hard to say. The most  important point is that Corbyn and Macron are moving in diametrically opposed directions.

* This article was first published in Italian at Il Salto.

**Lead image Flickr/duncan c. Some rights reserved