Progressive barbarians in Brussels?

For three days, dozens of speakers passed through the halls of the European Parliament agreeing on one thing: fundamental changes must be made to the global economic system. Changes in which activists play a fundamental role and governments march to their tune.

A slim, affable, and energetic forty-year-old with a short-cropped beard, talks with panache, aided by colourful slides, about how the basic principles on which companies operate need to change. In the past, he says, companies were organised around a single idea: how to generate as much value as possible. And this is leading to the doom of the planet. It can't go on like this, or we won't make the necessary transformation. So we need to organise companies around another principle: how much benefit can we generate. The man lists them extensively: benefits for society, for employees, for the community, for the ecology, for the planet... There is frenetic applause in the hall.

The speaker fails to name those who have invested their own money in these companies. Clearly, they are not entitled to any benefits. Or perhaps their benefit is the simple satisfaction of benefiting others? Does it matter anyway? I checked the biographical note of the speaker. There is no indication that he has ever run his own business or invested his own money in it. In his mind, there is probably the thought that somehow the holders of money must be made to give it away for the use of companies producing benefits for everyone around them but them, but he prudently does not utter this thought. It is safe to assume that it would cause unnecessary confusion among his enthusiastic listeners.

Instead of arousing similar controversy with a commanding tone, he shows a slide displaying a long list of possible measures to support businesses, and at the top of these, of course, are subsidies. State ones, though also municipal, regional, and international ones. The room is beaming. Especially the jovial, short, sixty-something-year-old man in the front row, who looks like an accountant with a mission, or perhaps an auditor. He is addressed by all the performers, and he rewards them with an approving look in his role as patron and host.

Soon after the energetic speaker leaves, a tall, slim man with tufts of sparse hair on his head takes the stage, speaking nervously and as if to himself, for the staccato of his brilliant phrases is probably only partially comprehensible to those gathered. He is wearing green sports shoes, and before approaching the microphone, he removes his light green jacket to demonstrate a pistachio-coloured T-shirt with the inscription "Social Green Economy. The Future." He delivers a fiery philippic against the market today, concluding that there is no such thing as a market economy, that we all live in a planned economy, and that since this is the case, we should learn from this and really start planning for the future. He says that we don't need the social market economy favoured by Ursula von der Leyen, but merely a social green economy or something based upon it.

An uproar erupts. The young people present stood up and applauded. Earlier, such enthusiasm prevailed for a moment only when the speaker said that all markets are militarised, specifically when he said this about the US market. The sympathetic patron sitting in the front row also applauded and smiled approvingly. The agreement between the speaker, the patron, and the majority of the audience is perfect: the market is bad, America is bad, profit-seeking business owners are bad, economic growth, however “green” it may be, is bad. What we all need is a green economy and “inclusive prosperity”.

There would be nothing strange in this picture, after all, we have in our minds the image of the tailors Berdychiv repeating aloud like a mantra the verses of Marx's “Capital” (today it would probably be Piketty), and we know that similar gatherings take place regularly, sometimes even with the participation of widely known audiences. However, this gathering was all the more unusual in that it took place in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament, and began with speeches by its President, Roberta Metsola, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Organising such a meeting in this place and under these auspices was the personal success of the nice gentleman who looks like an accountant, who is just finishing his third term as an MEP and is co-president of the Green faction in the MEPs. The gentleman's name is Philippe Lamberts, he is Belgian and refers to his Christian faith. For years, his dream has been to introduce the concept of “degrowth”, into the heart of European politics.

Despite the name, the promoters of this concept try hard to explain that it has nothing to do with the recession. This is what automatically comes to mind for anyone with even a passing interest in the economy. This is probably why, in order not to arouse bad associations, Lamberts’s conference is entitled "Beyond growth". However, everyone in the room knows what it is about.
Fot. printscreen/
Lamberts makes no secret of his delight at being able to convince the head of the European Commission and a number of commissioners to attend the three-day event. The previous conference on a similar theme in 2018 was attended by only one EU commissioner, and then President Juncker was tepid about the idea. Now, the head of the Commission is giving the opening speech, and the banners announcing the conference feature the logo of the European People's Party. What a change!

This does not, of course, imply a substantive agreement, about which Lamberts has not the slightest doubt. But that is not what he means. Until now, those carrying the idea of post-growth were treated as “dangerous radicals” or “frivolous dreamers”. Now, they are debating with the giants of European politics. They have the chance to make their arguments where European law is being made and – thanks to the activists who have signed up for the conference, they can feel at home there.

What made Ursula von der Leyen decide to let the radicals "into the heart of Europe"? At a time when climate activists are glueing themselves to road surfaces and paintings in galleries and – horror of horrors! – disrupting EU conferences, the head of the Commission wants to avoid the accusation that the European Union is in any way delaying the fight against climate change and is not energetic enough in saving the planet. After all, the whole “green deal” narrative is based on creating the perception that the Union is making a more radical turn towards a green future than ever before.

     And just as this narrative is unfolding at its best, there are activists who want to convince the public that this radicalism is not radical enough and is turning in the wrong direction. Von der Leyen has decided to follow the old American saying: “if you can't beat them, join them”. It was preferable to pretend to be friends and make up their own story in an effort to undermine that of their opponent because an open fight would not have received well from the general public.

Extremely characteristic from this point of view were the two opening speeches by representatives of the two most important EU institutions. President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola showed herself as someone who has no desire to flatter the audience and intends to defend her convictions. She uttered the much-hated word “growth” several times in her speech and added that this is something that the public expects and that politicians should provide for the people. Angry murmurs rang out from the upper rows.

Ursula von der Leyen chose a different path. She chose to replace the word “Beyond growth” with “Green growth” and joined the criticism of the notion of economic growth, but added an important caveat: “economic growth based on fossil fuels must come to an end”. She was also completely open that it all depends on who “wins the narrative”. The room clapped, Philippe Lambert smiled, but the answer for both women was already prepared.

After the opening speeches, three more speakers were invited, whose speeches had the value of cannon salvos designed to level the positions of the opponent, or in this case, the opponents. Interestingly, both Roberta Marsola and Ursula von der Leyen, unlike the usual case when high-ranking officers “honour the hosts with their presence”, make their speeches, and then slip off with an apologetic smile to other “urgent” activities, sat to the end and listened to what the adversaries had to say. Perhaps they wanted to show courtesy, perhaps they needed to show attention, or perhaps they wanted to hear in person how their message would be fleshed out.

The first speaker was Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, co-chair of the Club of Rome, from which the post-growth thinking began. In 1972, the Club published a famous book by a group of American scientists called The Limits to Growth, in which they posited that the Earth's resources were finite and that population would grow indefinitely, so sooner or later these resources would be exhausted.

On the one hand, however, their thought contained an assumption that was true, because if the Earth can be measured and weighed, it means that it is finite, and so are its resources. On the other hand, however, their predictions were based on faulty assumptions at many points, which made a number of predictions fail. In other words: will oil reserves run out? Someday, yes. But not in 1992, as we could see for ourselves, and as the authors of the book solemnly predicted.

Regardless of the specifics, The Limits to Growth has been a gigantic publishing success, with three million copies sold, and has introduced into our thinking the otherwise common-sense notion that we must consume the Earth's resources in moderation.

Although she was born in Belgium, Sandrine Dixson-Decleve thundered from the rostrum like La Pasionaria, calling on politicians to show “the will to change”, and responded to Metsola's words about growth by saying that people “don't want growth, they want security” and they needed a “New Marshall Plan”.

The second speaker was the rising star of progressive economics, Jason Hickel, the Swaziland-born and US-educated author of “Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World”. He called for the cancellation of unpayable debts to the IMF, which he encouraged, and proposed an extensive public works programme that he said would stabilise the economy and eliminate unemployment by ensuring that everyone continued to work on various construction sites. The young people listening to him seemed delighted, probably hoping that they would not be the ones pushing wheelbarrows on these construction sites.

He also listed a number of product categories whose production should be reduced or stopped because they are "totally insignificant to human wellbeing", among them beef, guns and advertising. The young people listening to him, with pleasant-looking faces, seemed delighted by this prospect. Probably most of them don't eat beef and are annoyed by the adverts, but stopping arms production when authoritarian regimes are arming themselves to the hilt seems far-fetched extravagance nonetheless.

I didn't see whether Philippe Lamberts applauded, but he probably did, and even if he didn't, in the end he was the one who decided that Hickel should be among the first to speak and present his views to the heads of important European institutions. How does he combine this with the resolutely anti-Putin stance of the European Greens? This is difficult to say.

Finally, the icing on the cake: the last person to convey her views to Metsola and von der Leyen was climate activist Adelaide Charlier, only slightly older than Greta Thunberg. She asked that young people not be shown “misleading maps of the future” because it is time to “move our nations from the shifting sands of unlimited economic growth to the hard ground of inclusive prosperity”. To the rhetorical question of when activists would be satisfied, she replied that “we will not be satisfied as long as the boundaries of the planet are not considered a horizon that cannot be crossed for the benefit of humans and other living organisms”. Which is to say, never.

I go hunting to obtain healthy, fresh meat

I shoot so as to kill the animal, explains the hunter with 30 years of experience.

see more
For three days, dozens of speakers, with varying degrees of radicalism but one thing in common, passed through the plenary and side rooms of the European Parliament. Changes in which a fundamental role will be played by activists who will be the intellectual vanguard of the movement and identify its goals, as well as by states that will have a coercive apparatus and a system of incentives and will force and subsidise change.

There were a lot of high-level discussions, but little thinking about how to achieve the stated goals. After all, it is much easier and more attractive to talk about “inclusive wellbeing” than it is to talk about who will pay for that wellbeing. Similarly, it is all very well to turn a blind eye and dream of a “guaranteed income” for everyone, but it is much worse to imagine the consequences of living in such an organised society, where not only will people have to be paid, but also prevented from earning money on the side, as this will upset the ideal social balance.

How do we get young, ambitious people to participate in public works as contractors? And what to do with entrepreneurs who, when confronted with a situation where the money they have invested will only turn into “benefits” for others, will simply not want to invest? Obviously, the role of the investor will be taken over by the state and the economy will become centrally planned.

Finally, what if, having successfully extinguished arms and ammunition production, there is nothing to stop the future versions of Russia’s Wagner group going west as Putin's distant watchpost? The benefit will surely be that all the dilemmas of young people concerned about the planet and its ecology will be allayed by the commissioners in power. And they will not be EU commissioners.

By allowing these people into the very heart of Europe, Metsola and von der Leyen have thrown the first dice in a dangerous game. Probably, as I wrote earlier, they wanted to capture the narrative and stand at the head of the march of progress so that, firstly, it would not move too fast and, secondly, they would change the direction of the march. They do not seem to have succeeded. The young activists who made up the audience of the conference were most enthusiastic about the most radical ideas, while Philippe Lamberts, their patron, benevolently favoured all extremes.

What happened in Brussels was the European equivalent of the Bison Man entering the US Capitol. Only in America, the Bison Man got a year and a half in prison, while in Europe, progressive barbarians are held in high regard. Roberta Metsola began her speech by recalling the moment twenty years earlier when, as a young activist, she first saw the inside of the assembly hall of the European Parliament and felt the power of democracy. I worry that Adelaide Charlier, who along the way will have managed to climb to a position similar to Metsola's, will issue a similar reminder in twenty years.

What will Europe look like then? – Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Roberto Galea

The ”Beyond Growth” conference was held on 15-17 May, 2023.
Main photo: Philippe Lamberts and Ursula von der Leyen during a session of the European Parliament in Brussels in March 2023. In the background, German MEP Terry Reintke, one of the leaders of the Greens, co-chair of the European Parliament's Group on LGBT Rights and privately partner of French senator Mélanie Vogel. Photo EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET Supplier: PAP/EPA.
See more
Civilization wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
To Siberia and Ukraine
Zaporizhzhia. A soldier in a bunker asked the priest for a rosary and to teach him how to make use of it.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Climate sheikhs. Activists as window dressing
They can shout, for which they will be rewarded with applause
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
The plane broke into four million pieces
Americans have been investigating the Lockerbie bombing for 35 years.
Civilization wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
German experiment: a paedophile is a child's best friend
Paedophiles received subsidies from the Berlin authorities for "taking care" of the boys.
Civilization wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
The mastery gene
The kid is not a racehorse.