Commentary. The major world players are driven more by factors of weakness than by factors of strength: Russia, certainly, but also the U.S. and China. The most tangled knot, however, concerns Europe.

The war economy undermines Europe’s recovery

Generated by the war in Ukraine, the current downsizing of the economic recovery that had started globally in 2021, at the first signs of the easing of pressure from COVID, has profound implications. The quantity and quality of work, i.e., “full and good employment,” are reasserting themselves as the decisive dimensions, in the face of fewer hours worked, involuntary part-time work which is a setback for women’s status, the growth of fixed-term and temp work, the decline in apprenticeships and more and more major obstacles for young people and women.

States that have already been severely tested to sustain the economy and society during the pandemic are now diverting much of their resources to arms and war efforts, precarity and employment difficulties are increasing and social services are being restricted.

Poverty is rising again, social exclusion is festering, inequality is widening; the mafias, corruption, and the gray zone around organized crime are growing stronger. Even worse, entire ecosystems are also being destroyed, and there is more and more ecological and environmental injustice, to the detriment, once again, of the most fragile and disadvantaged social classes.

The plight on the latter is one of the places where the consequences of the war are most felt, which threaten to delay, if not disrupt, the “green” transition, given all the talk of “war ecology,” and also affect the digital transition, given the increasing militarization of artificial intelligence, for example.

Behind it all, there are deep forces at work. Energy lies at the center of the conflict, which has never been more intertwined with geopolitics. Technologies are the other fundamental area of competition and conflict: ever-smaller microchips, batteries for electric mobility and renewable energy storage, new materials, robotics, artificial intelligence. All in the context of global markets resettling toward levels of “selective globalization,” that is, for continental areas and more limited fields.

Paradoxically, all actors in the field are driven more by factors of weakness than by factors of strength: Russia, certainly, but also the U.S. and China. The most tangled knot, however, concerns Europe. The Mediterranean countries, including Italy, are increasingly peripheral. France, which has lost whole chunks of its industry and seen its education system deteriorate and its workforce shrink, has less room to maneuver today. Germany, whose basic model is based on the coal industry and polluting sectors such as automobiles and chemicals, must counter its high dependence on Russian gas and at the same time recalibrate entire production and sub-supply chains—in which Italy’s presence is significant—which are strongly oriented toward the East and China, in the wake of Willy Brandt’s admittedly brilliant Ostpolitik.

This is a major reason for why Europe still has a key role to play, in spite of all its contradictions, hesitations and backwardness. The revolutionary spirit that animated Next Generation EU, the opportunities contained in the renegotiation of the rules of European governance and the “Stability and Growth Pact,” the possibility of endowing Europe with a fiscal capacity designed to finance European public goods and the creation of new European-scale public entities with a portfolio of projects primarily in the fields of biomedical research, Big Data, technologies for ecological transition and nuclear fission for peace purposes should not be underestimated.

While it would be wrong to see an easy and unquestioned restoration of state authority everywhere—in reality, the return of the state is very unpredictable, erratic, controversial, often bent towards the “predatory” service of capital and private powers—it would also be wrong to express total skepticism about the possibility that public institutions, especially if they are at the European scale, will be able to identify innovative “missions” that are alternative to those coming from markets and corporations, performing acts of faith, Carl Schmitt style, among Shumpeterian animal spirits, and in power as forceful and as domination, and mocking the Europe that persists in drawing inspiration from Kant’s “perpetual peace” and puts itself in the role of a “normative power.” Because it is not only a matter of preventing anti-social use of technologies in the direction of armaments and war, it is a matter of succeeding in bringing into being the conditions for creating and inventing an entirely new technological innovation and processes, oriented primarily to the satisfaction of unmet social needs and only derivatively to the generation of new sources of profit.

The awareness that the underlying heritage of values of a united Europe, though increasingly underutilized, has never been lost, and instead, when activated, it has enabled Europe to generate periods of exceptional mobilization and civic maturity, must prompt us today, in these hard times of violence and war, to rediscover and revitalize it.

Universalism sprang from the revolutionary paradigm thanks to Europe, which “is the first civilization,” according to Paolo Prodi, “that has conceived itself dynamically, and the whole of history, as a permanent ‘revolution.’”

Kant was also recognized as the philosopher of the French Revolution because he hailed its achievements as a “historical symbol” of a normative path that was intended to be irreversible, whose key concepts are universality, equality, inclusion, and emancipation. Now, Habermas – raising a hymn to the learning and growth intrinsic to human creativity – reminds us that the traces of that path never disappeared entirely, even in dark times, and always come back again. But the steps to take it further are up to our imagination, whose task is to devise and concretize them.

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