Newsletter #44: Great Hours, Small People with Anton Jäger and Dominik Leusder

By Mack Penner

On The Dig’s recent episode with Anton Jäger and Dominik Leusder, featuring almost two-and-a-half hours on European political economy from the 1970s to the present, Leusder describes the actions of the “Troika” during and after the 2010 Eurozone crisis in harsh terms. The Troika (or the European Commission, European Central Bank [ECB], and International Monetary Fund) managed disastrous bailouts of insolvent European states including, most infamously, Greece. Singling out the ECB for completely misjudging the stakes of the crisis and thus failing to even approach an adequate response, Leusder suggests that “the hour was great in Europe, but the people in charge were very small.”

Leusder’s critique resonates with other accounts. Adam Tooze, for example, has been blisteringly critical of the Eurozone crisis’s management. As the crisis was boiled down to something like a clash of German fiscal discipline and Greek fiscal imprudence, it became, in Tooze’s formulation, “a doom loop of private and public credit and a crisis of the European project as such.” Insisting on teaching the Greeks a lesson, European elites turned an economy representing hardly any more than 1 percent of the European Union’s GDP into the focal point of a needlessly tragic performance of stern austerity. For Tooze, the Eurozone crisis was “a train wreck, a shambles of conflicting visions, a dispiriting drama of missed opportunities, of failures of leadership and failures of collective action.” Great hour, small people, indeed.

We can take this problem of great hours and small people and generalize it beyond Europe as a way to think about what Tooze would describe as our present condition of “polycrisis.” None of us need to be reminded about the myriad components of such overlapping crises that we’ve been engulfed in since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is worth being aware of the enormous gap between the ongoing requirements of polycrisis management (including dealing with climate change, war, economic chaos, energy market disruption, and so on) and the apparent capabilities of our putative crisis managers. We are reminded every day of the chasm that exists between what needs to be done and what is actually being done. The web of global interests that structures our collective ability to respond to the polycrisis seems routinely to either exacerbate our problems or to block solutions. These generalizations, I’m sure, can be filled in with any number of specific details from wherever in the world you are reading this newsletter.

This all leads to another point that Jäger raises: as Friedrich Engels knew, the bar for success on the Left is higher than it is on the Right because “capital is already organized.” Even if the polycrisis seems to cry out for, let’s say, management from the Left, getting to a point, whether above, below, or right at the national level, where the Left would control the relevant levers is no straightforward thing. Such is the nature of our situation at this great hour.

Further Reading and Listening Read our guests! In Jacobin, and on related matters, Leusder has written on the tenure of Angela Merkel as German Chancellor and on the growing debt crisis in so-called emerging markets. Further to the challenges that the left currently faces, read Jäger on “hyper-politics” in Jacobin.

If you want to read Tooze’s full account of the Eurozone crisis, Crashed is the book.

If you aren’t already aware, The Dig’s website has a topics tab, so you can look back through any and every previous episode on all things European. But my archival recommendation, in addition to the episodes linked sporadically above, is the last 20 minutes of Mike Davis’s 2020 interview, a section that is incredibly rich on how the Left can confront the forces arrayed against it.