European Union

Who took back control?

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the London School of Economics. She pioneered the concept of ‘new wars’ and ‘global civil society’, and her work has directly influenced European and national politics.

*The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for European Alternatives’ forthcoming documentary Demos: Solidarity in Europe.

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the London School of Economics. She pioneered the concept of ‘new wars’ and ‘global civil society’, and her work has directly influenced European and national politics. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, she is also part of the organising group of Another Europe is Possible. We spoke to her about the prospective withdrawal of the UK from the EU, about global conflicts and about what will come after the nation state.

European Alternatives: We would like to ask you an open question about the experience of Another Europe is Possible because often the mainstream discourse divides the understanding of the Brexit process in two: you can be for remaining in the European Union or against it; but this rules out the option proposed by Another Europe is Possible, which is to remain in Europe in order to change it, in order to have a different Europe from that of the establishment, disliked by most of us. Can you tell us something about how this third perspective emerged?

Mary Kaldor: I think it emerged from the ideas of all the people taking part in Another Europe is Possible, because I believe one of the things we felt during the Brexit campaign, something that was very frustrating, was that the Remain campaign was an extremely “establishment” oriented campaign. The scene appeared to be taken up by a divide between the populist right and the neoliberal global elite, and the progressive voice just wasn’t there, and so Another Europe is Possible was founded as late as May, just before the referendum in June.

It was amazing, it was a group of fantastic people coming together, working incredibly hard during the referendum campaign. It would have been much worse, I think, had there not been the work of Another Europe is Possible. Anyhow, that’s how it started.

European Alternatives: To what extent do you think Brexit was connected to the demand for smaller and more homogeneous fatherlands, “patrias”? Take the case of Barcelona, after the recent developments on the Catalan referendum, which of course was very different from Brexit: perhaps in both instances there is a demand for a smaller scale community that we can recover control of.

Mary Kaldor: I would put it in a rather different way, because my work is on war and conflict, and I’ve seen it all before in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. I think disreputable politicians, people who are making huge amounts of money out of neoliberal policies think the only way in which they can maintain power is to appeal to fear, and base their politics on fear. I think there is always a small core of people who hold these nationalistic or racist views, but it becomes respectable once politicians start playing on those fears and views, and I think that’s what’s been happening both with Trump and with Brexit.

European Alternatives: Is it all about reputable nationalism or is there also a concept of alienation here?

Mary Kaldor: There is a huge amount of alienation, of course there is alienation, but the question is how do you direct it: because to direct it into the blaming of the other is a dead-end; it can only lead to violence and conflict. I mean, Scotland is a very good example of a progressive way in which people have talked about bringing politics near to the citizens. And of course Brexit played on that too, “take back control”, but actually  what that “take back control” meant was handing power to Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.

European Alternatives: Maybe this is something we see happening more and more often: the attempt to exclude people that were outside our communities ultimately backfires and introduces exclusion and borders inside our communities. It is very clear in the case of borders, you start by advocating higher walls along the external frontiers of the European Union (Maghreb, Mediterranean, the East…) and now we have ended up with frontiers inside the European Union.

Mary Kaldor: I have a different take on migration, I think walls are the consequence of this conflict and not the cause. Even despite the war in Syria, I don’t think levels of migration are much greater than they were before. If you consider the vast number of people who come into Europe legally, the number of people who die in the Mediterranean or in Calais, it is a very small number, and if we hadn’t made such a fuss about it, we could have absorbed this number without anyone noticing. The consequences of fear mongering generate more fear and it creates a kind of vicious cycle which helps the politicians of the right.

European Alternatives:  Is this vicious cycle not also affecting “us”? Think of the song: ‘First they came for the Socialists… Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me’.

Mary Kaldor: All the conflicts that I study, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Syria, are actually about sectarianism versus civil society, they are attacks on civil society. If you look at what happened in Yugoslavia, what happened in Syria, the first people to leave were the intellectuals. Of course there are other people too, but it’s amazing to see how refugees speak such wonderful English; indeed the first people to get killed are the intellectuals and the civil society activists, because there is such huge resentment, and the Yugoslavia conflict was very much about the divide between the people who lived in towns, who were cosmopolitans, who were able to travel to Europe, and the rural unemployed, hugely resentful.

European Alternatives:  You have been studying transnational mobilisations and transnational citizenship for years, what is your view, on the basis of this work? How can we reconstruct transnational citizenship based not on exclusion but on solidarity? How to make this something more than just an elite project, something that people may actually believe in?

Mary Kaldor: What you speak of actually already exists, look at the peasant movements in North America, for instance. My great friend Ulrich Beck talked about Cosmopolitanisation, which is a rather long word, but what he was saying is that it’s actually rather unnatural to belong to a national community. We are all linked to transnational communities, whether we’re working for the University, or doing ordinary work with multinational companies, whatever, the fact is our communities cross borders now in a way they didn’t before.

The problem is that our political institutions are still based on national political borders, and what we need to create is new transnational institutions which may reflect the reality of transnational communities.

European Alternatives: Going back to what you were saying about the need for transnational institutions, how can we bridge the gap between transnational mobilization of transnational practices, which is episodic – it is the result of a specific issue, of a specific challenge at a specific historical moment– and the construction of transnational institutions that last for extended periods of time, and are of course democratic?

Mary Kaldor: Yes, I think there is a gap. I think two movements came to a head in the 1980s: on the one hand the post 1968 movements that became peace and human rights groups – they were passionately pro Europe because they wanted to overcome the division of Europe, it was a peace project – and on the other hand you had the growth of neoliberal ideas. These two movements came together in the Maastricht Treaty, which further advanced the European project, but with a compromise between the neoliberal project of Thatcher, and Europeanism. People say: “Why did they create this monetary union? They knew it wouldn’t work”, and to quote Beck again, his answer was that it was a continuation of the “money method”. The early Europeans thought that if they took economic steps, then political steps would have to follow. The jury is still debating whether he was right, I mean it is still possible for Europe to take another step forward as a result, with Macron, Merkel, the Social Democrats in Germany, etc. But what I also think is that we tend to have a very old-fashioned conception of democracy, according to which democracy is about voting, about institutions, and that institutions change with voting. I don’t think that’s true at all, and actually what I find fascinating about the European Union is that, in contrast to governments, it has much more of a close relationship with civil society, and lot of ideas come from society, like taxing multinational safe havens, to name one. This isn’t to say that I don’t think we also need to democratize institutions. People say the European Union is very undemocratic, but if by democracy we mean responding to citizens demands, I think it’s probably more democratic than many national governments.

Lorenzo Marsili and Mary Kaldor, European Alternatives, Flickr. Some rights reserved

European Alternatives: It’s funny that the most undemocratic parties are those that most frustrate those requests. The tax heaven and the European Council of Member States is a good example of this, it illustrates how very often it is the nation states that frustrate democratic participation.

Mary Kaldor: And I think that is part of the story. We have this idea which goes: “Oh we live in this globalized world where everybody interacts”, but actually it’s not because of information technology or finances, it’s because of what I call the sclerosis of the nation state. The reason why people like me became transnational activists is that we were so frustrated with national British politics, and we found a way out by campaigning against NATO, for instance, and this was a way to connect to other countries, and that is what produced globalisation, in my view. Along with multinational corporations doing the same thing of course, because they too were frustrated with nation states, but it is important to think of globalization as something also generated by our connections.

European Alternatives: We are entering a great moment of redrafting and reprogramming globalisation, because both of these elements, both nation states and multinationals are now in crisis.  

Mary Kaldor: Exactly, and that is where I see a real role for some groups like European Alternatives or Another Europe is Possible.

*Lead image credit: Pete Lambert, Flickr. Some rights reserved 



European Alternatives
European Alternatives is a non-profit, non-state organisation working with the conviction that a transnational renovation of our political imaginations, institutions and actions needs to take place to adequately understand and address the crises Europe is facing.