Dignity and Democracy: Escaping the Clutches of the Financial Markets

An Essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit

In today's Europe, the people are no longer in control. Instead, politicians have become slaves to financial institutions and the markets. We are partly to blame -- and changes are urgently needed to nurse European democracy back to health.

The skyline of Frankfurt: "Trouble is brewing all over Europe." Zoom
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The skyline of Frankfurt: "Trouble is brewing all over Europe."

We are doing well. In fact, we're doing splendidly. The economy is booming, with 1.5 percent growth in the first quarter. We are as prosperous as we were before the crisis, which has finally been overcome. Congratulations are in order for everyone.

The banks, Deutsche Bank above all, deserve particular congratulations. In the first quarter, it earned €3.5 billion ($5.1 billion) in pretax profits in its core business, and by the end of the year the bank will likely report a record €10 billion in pretax profits, its best results ever. That number is expected to rise to €11 billion or even €12 billion in two or three years.

Less than three years after the peak of the crisis, it seems as if it never happened. That is true of the economy, but it is also true of us as economic subjects. But is that all we are?

No, we are also citizens and participants in a democratic society. As such, we have no reason to be celebrating. Instead, we ought to be sad and outraged. Democracy, after all, is not doing splendidly, or even well. It is gradually becoming a casualty of the financial crisis.

Rage Directed at Politicians

Trouble is brewing all over Europe. Young people with little hope for the future are protesting in Spain. In France, 1.4 million copies were sold of a manifesto titled "Be Outraged." Young Frenchmen and -women are devising utopias that extend well beyond civil society because they no longer expect anything from it. A deep depression has descended upon Greece, combined with a rage directed at politicians and the rest of Europe.

In Germany, this is what politicians are hearing from their citizens today: "You spent billions to rescue the banks, and now I'm supposed to be footing the bill? Forget it!" Hardly anyone is willing to put up with their politicians any more. And German leaders have lost support -- and some of their own legitimacy.

They seem helpless, unable to come to grips with the euro crisis. They meet in Brussels, and they talk, argue and adopt resolutions, and yet nothing improves. Greece isn't getting out of its hole, Ireland and Portugal are teetering on the brink, and Spain and Italy are heavily indebted to a dangerous degree. And no politician is providing leadership.

And then there were the lies. Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, had his spokesman deny that a meeting of European Union finance ministers on the Greek crisis was taking place, even though that meeting was in fact taking place. It wasn't the kind of lie that frequently crops up in politics: the broken campaign promise. Rather, it was more crass type of untruth: the denial of a reality. Juncker no longer had the courage to speak the truth. He was guided by fear of the financial markets. His lie was a capitulation of politics.

Things Will Have to Change

This is what is so disturbing about the current situation: the fact that politicians seem so helpless and powerless. They have been given a new master, and it's not us, the people, who tend to intervene in milder ways. Rather, it's the ruthless financial markets. The markets drive politicians even further into anxiety, weakness, incapacity and lies. Those who govern us are now being governed by the banks. That's the situation.

We could decide that we don't care because the economic figures are so good. But that would mean we are happy to play the role of the economic subject, to invest and spend money, all the while abandoning the original promise of democracy. Or we can say: We refuse to relinquish our role and political masters. But if that's our decision, things will have to change.

How has this happened? What are the consequences? And how do we extricate ourselves from this situation?

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