Europe and the old nationalisms - Part 3

In the second part of the set "Europe and the old nationalisms" I chose the term "glocalization" as an effective way to overcome today’s concerns regarding nation-states and their fitting into a mare feasible European Union. As explained previously, glocalization consists of strengthening ties among citizens at a local level while assigning more responsibilities to a supranational entity - at the global level.

However, today’s national parliaments have lost their capacity to be efficient agents when dealing with political and economic issues. Most important matters that affect nation-states are negotiated and voted at European level, and yet the national parliaments have not changed whatsoever. We have to admit it: the empowerment of the old nation states as centralized institutions has become costly and dysfunctional. What is the difference between meeting in my country or in yours? Planes fly back and forth many times a day, and Internet or other current technological tools allow policymakers to meet almost daily in Brussels or other ‘neutral’ cities and spaces. Everything is changing but the nation states.

Local Power - Local Knowledge

Seeing that European institutions are constantly being summoned to assume control of the global competences that nation states cannot manage on their own, one begins to wonder whether it wouldn’t be more efficient to give power to European citizens rather than to their national parliaments. Put it another way: maybe local administrations such as town councils could assume responsibilities that are supposed to belong with national governments? After all, we all agree that ‘proximity policy’ does offer advantages over the centralized and distant governments. Let us analyse what could local power look like in a hypothetical and stronger European Union.

Duncan J. Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, has focused his research on ‘local knowledge’. In his book, "Everything is obvious (once you know the answer)", he notes that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were characterized by too much optimism among engineers, architects, scientists, and also government technocrats. Their error was the obstinate belief that problems of a society can be solved just like those in science or engineering. According to the political scientist James Scott, the central flaw in this "high modernist" philosophy is the lack of emphasis on local, context-dependent knowledge, while favouring rigid mental models of cause and effect. As Scott put it, applying generic rules to a complex world is "an invitation to practical failure, social disillusionment, or most likely both".  

In this respect, Duncan Watts explains that this kind of knowledge is hardly reducible to generally applicable principles, precisely because "the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply". In other words: the knowledge on which a plan is based it's necessarily local to the concrete situation for which it is destined. Is it not the same work and production method that many big companies are using? Take the Toyota Production System – it is engineered along "just in time" principles, which ensures that if one part of the system fails, the whole system is stalled until the problem is fixed. The advantage of such a model is that it forces organizations to address problems quickly and aggressively. It also forces them to trace the ‘root causes’ of problems– a process that frequently requires looking beyond the immediate cause of the failure to discover how flaws in one part of the system can result in failures somewhere else. Finally, it obliges them either to look for existing solutions, or to adapt solutions from related activities. As Duncan Watts points out, "together these three practices – identifying failure points, tracing problems to root causes, and searching for solutions outside the confines of existing routines – can transform the organization itself from one that offers solutions to complex problems in a centralized managerial manner into one that searches for solutions among a broad network of collaborators".

Planner vs. Searcher

Could a "glocalized" EU use a similar approach to solve intractable policy problems? What if the EU became a global institution that specifies the "solutions" at the highest level, while leaving the specifics up to local administrations? Would it be useful to have national parliaments in such a system? I doubt that. Today’s nation states have become obsolete, bureaucratic actors which devote their resources to finding "existing solutions" wherever they occur, and to spreading their practices. However, as Zygmunt Bauman would say, we live in a "liquid society". And we cannot pretend to apply generic rules to such a complex world either.

In a social context, the EU ought to be a sort of global planner institution. “Planners do not need to figure out the solution to every problem on their own” says Duncan Watts. Instead, they devise plans that revolve around the knowledge and motivation of local actors rather than relying on their own. In other words, they need to learn to behave more like what William Easterly, the development economist, calls searchers:

“A Planner thinks he already knows the answer; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors … and hopes to find answers to individual problems by trial and error… A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.”

An example of “glocalization” between the EU and local administrations is the case of a recent EU-funded project with the aim of analysing cardiovascular health risks of ninety Madrid neighbourhoods. It is a valuable instance of collaboration between what we call "global" and "local" administrations, because it could serve to develop plans beyond individual behaviours would affect the whole population. Did the EU initially know the right "solutions" to improve health conditions of the citizens in Madrid? No. Nevertheless, its collaboration with the local Madrid administrations resulted in a common pursuit of European healthiness: local solutions to global aims.

Recently, the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas has reminded us the lack of a large-scale European public sphere. In this regard, Liam Fitzgerald suggests that we create one encompassing all the national public spheres and the many small pan-European media projects, in order to actually achieve a universal public sphere. I believe that "glocalization" can contribute to achieving this goal by fostering ‘proximity policies’ on the one hand, and by avoiding useless duplicities between Europe and the old nation-states on the other. As Fitzgerald says: "Above all, it will keep bureaucrats and officials in touch with everyday reality, and report on all events at Union and regional level. This process of reciprocal communication of problems and hopes, of solutions and proposals will help establish a real feeling of belonging together and an understanding that problems in one part of the continent can easily affect all other parts and that therefore they need to be addressed by all. The public sphere ideally will be Europe’s real democratic glue and the source of its legitimation, above and beyond common history, values, and beliefs. It is a way to bring problems to everyone’s attentions and a collective means of proposing solutions in cooperation between the people and government".

I would like to close this third and last part of the series "Europe and the old nationalisms" quoting Antonio Gramsci "we all live in an interregnum, a moment when the old is dying and the new cannot be born: the rules and laws of the past are gone, but the new laws have not yet been invented. The sovereignty of nation-states is now largely a fiction. ‘Power’ is the capacity to do, ‘politics’ is deciding what to do. Globalization has evaporated the power of nation states to supranational powers free from political control. If a government tries to get what its electors really want rather than what financial systems require, markets punish it severely".


Edited by:
Izabella Lobinska
Photo Credits:
Wikipedia