The Eurozone Crisis and the Internet: The Abstract of my PhD Thesis

This is the final abstract of my PhD thesis submitted last month:

The Internet has become an increasingly relevant space for political communication not only in national but also transnational contexts. This particularly applies for political discourses related to Europe, the EU, and the impact of the global economic crisis, which translated into a regional EU crisis. Political “publicness” is not limited to the mass media and there is considerable potential for the emergence of transnational web spheres as various communicators step into the digital public and disperse their viewpoints on the entailed social, economic, and political challenges.

There is still a lack of applicable theoretical concepts as well as empirical insights. The present project addresses this lacuna: firstly, by proposing an integrative theoretical framework for the identification and classification of transnational web spheres; secondly, by conducting a complementary frame- and network analysis of a representative sample of political online media content that focuses on issues related to EU politics during the Eurozone crisis.

The study sets out to evaluate whether public communicators in Europe formed a transnational web sphere or rather reinforced discourses that were fragmented along national and political fault lines. It further focuses on the question of how they framed Europe, the EU, and the EU-crisis. It is proposed that the analysis of both the content and underlying networks of web communication enables the critical observation of the complex and often conflict-loaded interrelations between the transnational and national dimension; this also opens the way for analysing how key actors communicate political concepts, ideas, affiliations, and identities.

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Robert S. McNamara’s Life Lessons and the EU Crisis

Last week I watched again one of my favourite documentaries: The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris’ brilliant interview with former US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara. In his autobiographical account McNamara outlines several lessons of war that he learnt through his active participation in top level decisions during the most decisive conflicts of the 20th century, i.e. World War 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally the Vietnam War. Though one might not concur with McNamara’s political attitudes and/or take a rather critical stance on his legacy, it is hard not to agree with the deeper wisdom these life lessons reflect. Personally, I think his insights have a somewhat universal validity beyond the context of war but one that applies to all forms of political, cultural, and social conflict. Especially in light of the EU/Eurozone crisis discourse that was rekindled with the unsurprising yet still very controversial outcome of the Greek elections last month, these lessons appear as adequate guidelines for those who either partake or observe the transnational debate:

Lesson #1: Empathise with your “enemy” (or opponent/alter)

This is by far the most important insight any political leader should consider in her/his daily work. If the chief interest is to genuinely solve a conflict, it is indispensable to see the issue that causes tensions from alter’s point of view, i.e. to put your self in your opponents shoes and interpret his actions from an angle that is not your own. The austerity/anti-austerity conflict is one instance in which this kind of thinking might have prevented a lot of misunderstandings that partly cumulated in profound cultural tensions (see the various quasi-racist stereotypes that described power-hungry German domination and lazy as well as corrupt Southern-Europeans). This, of course, demands a certain level of social intelligence and presupposes that not short-term goals, like domestic elections, but long-term solutions are the ultimate aim.

Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us

Rationality is a highly controversial issue by itself and always looks different depending on your socio-economic as well as political-cultural background; there hardly ever is one single rational approach for any political conflict. In fact, the clash of different perspectives that in themselves appear rational cause tensions and conflicts; thus, rationality never is a guarantor for lasting solutions. Instead, one should take a critical view on what seems rational and assess potential courses of actions and their probable outcomes based on a particular rationale before actually acting on it. Various actions taken to overcome the Eurozone crisis but which ultimately failed to deliver (e.g. reform programmes) imply that rationality was often taken at face-value – with partly disastrous consequences for those who were directly affected.

Lesson #3: There’s Something beyond One’s Self

McNamara relates this lesson to the nation or society; his basic argument is that one needs to work for a common good and overcome individual interests, at least in certain situations that demand this. In the case of the Eurozone crisis a real solution can only be approached if the involved parties agree that there is something worth working for above particular interests; something that represents a shared, common goal. Unfortunately, the crisis discourse in the past years rather hurt the idea of solidarity and union in Europe; it has become very difficult to convince electorates of the benefits of transnational cooperation, as leading political forces often placed emphasis on “national” interests.

Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency

This should be a no-brainer but longterm observers of the Eurozone crisis’ unfolding will agree that EU leaders’ actions tended to achieve quite the opposite of “maximising efficiency” when they tried to solve the crisis. Instead, delayed and insufficient measures contributed to a prolonged state of political and economic turmoil. Again, national politics and an unwillingness to communicate the real stakes of the crisis to sceptical national electorates impeded efficient decision-making on a transnational level. This in turn diminished prospects for European cooperation.

Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline (in war/conflict)

Fortunately, the Eurozone crisis has not lead to a conventional war between nation-states; however it quickly evolved into a war of words and images. Caricatures of German politicians as Nazis or portrayals of Greeks as unthankful cheaters are some of the more extreme transgressions in contemporary political communication in Europe. Public speakers across the political landscape have repeatedly lost their sense for proportionality and more than once the debate became downright toxic. The conflict of polarising framings seems to dominate political discourse on EU- and Eurozone politics; this inevitably has a inhibiting effect on deliberation on a transnational level.

Lesson #6: Get the data

Political decisions should be based on as much information about the issues in focus as possible. Ideally, valid data that represents aspects of social reality accurately informs policy making. However, things are rarely that simple; often insufficient or even skewed data can lead to fateful political decisions. So far nobody can really say whether austerity will actually solve problems in Eurozone member-states that suffer under an enormous public debt load. At the same time there appears to be lack of convincing alternatives. It seems highly recommendable that any viable longterm solution to the crisis should be based on a critical analysis of relevant data. Then again, the same data can always be interpreted in more than two ways…

Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are often both wrong

This one is closely connected to the previous lesson: before any political decision is made, one better makes sure that there is no doubt about the situation and that each entailed action is worth the stakes weighed in. Hearsay, false assumptions, prejudices, gross misinterpretations, wishful thinking, utopian visions – all of these can lead to bad policy decisions with disastrous consequences. Recently there was a lot of talk about growth in the Eurozone. However, a closer examination reveals the limits of this alleged betterment. Actors and commentators in the crisis discourse frequently premeditate all sorts of potential future scenarios and act on the assumption that action A will lead to result B. In how far these premedations are rooted in empirical reality is, however, often an open question – a crucial limitation that should be considered in decision-making processes.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

Being able to have empathy with an opponent and realising that one’s biases as well as observations might be wrong should lead to a re-examination of one’s reasoning. In other words, when you conclude that you might have based your previous reasoning on wrong assumptions, remain flexible enough to take a fresh approach; do not close your mindset to a single dogmatic grand strategy but stay open for new impulses. McNamara points out that people are just people and they make mistakes all the time; the trick is to accept this fact of life and be able to change your behaviour. The way in which political leaders stick to their interpretations of and proposed solutions to the Eurozone’s crisis implies that they have little inclination to take a critical stance on their reasonings and to admit that they might have come to the wrong conclusions; again, the austerity/anti-austerity discourse is somewhat exemplary for this. The same could be said for the debate on the general political infrastructure of the EU, where proponents of more integration oppose those who are less willing to increase transnational cooperation.

Lesson #9: In order to do good you may have to engage in evil

McNamara explains that any political leader who engages in a conflict must be aware that his/her actions may cause unnecessary harm to other, potentially innocent individuals; collateral damage cannot be avoided but should remain in proportion to the “good” it ultimately helps to preserve (or the “evil” it allows to minimise); the negative effects must remain as limited as possible. Yet this cannot mean that political decisions which might bear a considerable risk to cause harm to others are avoided at all cost if they serve a greater, common good. To the contrary, one has to accept that certain goals cannot be achieved without losses. Indeed, EU leaders implicitly accepted a high level of damage to social cohesion and solidarity across its member-states when they attempted to overcome the crisis and preserve the single currency – for the alleged good of all Europeans. However, they often failed to communicate explicitly how these losses were justified and that certain decisions really served the interest of the majority of EU citizens and not only financial institutions.

Lesson #10: Never say never

In political crises and conflicts nothing’s really for certain and politicians must actually remain flexible and open-minded if they want to overcome current challenges and find lasting solutions; it will do them no good if they exclude a particular course of action from the outset for some kind of short-term gain, since they might have to change their position at a later point. Furthermore, if a particular outcome to a current development appears highly unlikely from a certain angle it does not necessarily mean that it will not materialise at all. The complexity of modern conflicts actually forbids a strict commitment to a single approach and the non-negotiable exclusion of another. In the Eurozone context German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly vowed to her domestic political basis that she would never agree to Eurobonds, i.e. the de-facto mutualisation of debt in the Eurozone; other maintained that the Eurozone will never break-up while some predict quite the opposite, e.g. that a Greek exit was inevitable. Such positions and forecasts must not be taken as set in stone, since there always is an erratic, unpredictable moment inherent to political developments; one simply cannot take a particular expectation for granted.

Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature

From a historical perspective, the crisis will probably remain temporary and be “solved” at one point, even if it takes enormous social and financial costs. However, probably there will be more crises in the future, as with increasing complexity and convergence the lines of friction and thus areas of conflict appear to multiply in the EU as well as Eurozone. It would be foolish to expect that longterm solutions to current problems will prevent future crises, as society is a constantly changing system of communication that is vulnerable for yet unforeseeable irritations and collapses; the increasing transnationalisation of human interaction is somewhat inevitable against the background of a globalised world but also adds further uncertainty to an already highly dynamic and unstable situation. One must indeed learn from the current crisis to avoid similar mistakes further down the road but should always remember that there is no ultimate solution to the endless chain of challenges.

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Brilliant Documentary on the History of Capitalism

Last autumn German-French public TV station Arte broadcasted a six-part documentary on the history of capitalism by reviewing and critically discussing the “grand theories” of modern economics. I watched it over Christmas and can only recommend it, especially for those who want a concise yet detailed overview of what seems to determine most of global economics, politics, and culture (though you need to be able to understand either German and French). Regarding the current state of Eurozone politics and the ongoing conflict between neo-liberal and leftwing perspectives (see Greece), I think it remains of elevated topicality and may help viewers to read current events against their broader historical context.

The series starts with Adam Smith (who else?) and the basic idea of the ‘free market’. Th authors outline how a limited understanding of his enormously complex work and misinterpretation of key bits led to a fateful dogmatism that focused on the alleged rationality of free individuals and markets regulated by an “invisible hand”. The second part stays with Smith and discusses his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. It continues to show how his ideas, thoughts, and observations wer soften taken out of context and re-interpreted for specific goals and aims.

The following episodes then take a critical view on the works of David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, Marx, the heated debate between Hayek and Keynes, and finally Karl Polanyi – who developed the compelling thought that economics should be seen as part of cultural activity.

Read more about the show here. You can also watch the complete series on Youtube:

Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com

A Network Graph of the EU Web Sphere based on Hyperlinks (UPDATED)

The graph below visualises the hyperlink network of twenty-one political platforms in the EU context for the period between March 2011 and March 2013, which can be seen as one of the most tumultuous phases of the so-called EU crisis.

The  sample includes four major news media websites, three government websites (UK, Germany, Greece), four official EU websites, two think tank websites, four bloggers, and four NGO websites. I extracted all links from a sample of ca. 1320 postings that were published on these websites within the 24 months of intense crisis discourse covered in the analysis. Each node represents a website, while each line or “edge” stands for a unilateral hyperlink connection coming from a source (one of the 21 websites of the sample) to target; the size of a node implies how much content was produced by the respective platform within the focused time span, while  the thickness or “weight” of each line indicates how often a website was linked to from a source.

This graph is only a preliminary, incomplete draft and does not include all news media postings of the total sample yet; still, it gives a few insights in the structure of political online discourses in the EU context (click to enlarge):

EU Media Web
EU online media web sphere based on hyperlinks. The graph created with Gephi.

For starters, one can easily see that each of the sampled platforms had its very own sub-network of connections and references; they appear as centres of separate yet not completely isolated clusters. Could this be tendencies towards “silo formation” and fragmentation in the EU web discourse? At least the hyperlink pattern in the sample implies such a development, though the same must not necessarily apply to the actual content level and the network of non-hyperlink in-text references that might have emerged there. Still, looking at the structure of hyperlink networks provides access to the fabric of the transnational debate on the EU crisis and forms an adequate starting point for a more detailed discussion.

Apart from the smaller clusters around each node there seem to be ties between politically-ideologically similar websites; for example, in the upper half official EU web presence form a interconnected sub-network; on the right Eurosceptic websites appear to “amass”; the pro-European/federalist NGO Europa Union Deutschland mainly linked to a selection of like-minded sources, too. However, there are a few outliers that need closer examination, such as the “detached” sub-cluster around the extremely anti-European website Team Europe.

It is also interesting to observe that most websites link to themselves, as indicated by the coloured circles attached to the central nodes. Again, the bigger or “thicker” it is, the more often a particulate website tended to place a hyperlink to its own content within its postings.

These are just a few preliminary reflections and the initial observations need a more detailed discussion against the background of web-/public sphere theory and transnational communication. Nevertheless, this network graph highlights some interesting implications and provides further proof that at least a rudimentary transnational web sphere emerged in the EU crisis context.