Cruel Summers and Lonely Winters: A Personal Take on Ferrante vs. Knausgaard

This text includes some spoilers for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (all volumes)

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Some time ago I was talking to my mum on the phone and mentioned that I bought the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend. Her immediate reaction was to suggest I’m a bit out of touch with the literary trends, since both she and my grandma finished reading Ferrante’s cycle more than a year ago. I defended myself, saying I didn’t have time to read half a page of fiction (not too mention four books) last year because of my studies and internship, only to later realise I actually managed to consume quite a lot of another phenomenon of our times: the edgily titled My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

My mother dismissed Knausgaard’s books without reading them, claiming she’s not interested in someone’s traumatised childhood and alcoholic father (actually Ferrante’s books also feature plenty of trauma and addiction). Personally I found the first volume of My Struggle, focused on said trauma and father, a captivating masterpiece. It is in the next messily written volumes, full of clumsy male sexual experiences and (equally alien to me) fatherly dilemmas, where Karl Ove lost me to the obligations of writing my thesis. On the other hand, Elena Ferrante and her heroine, conveniently also named Elena (Greco), forced me to postpone work and socialising to follow their story, also covering topics absent from my everyday life (maternity, organised crime, earthquakes).

I don’t want to rely on my experience with these works just to claim that Ferrante is better: the ending of her cycle disappointed me and killed my hopes of seeing it as something really great, something like Father Goriot by Balzac, which I finish reading and think “wow”. Also I appreciate the somewhat gimmicky novelty of Knausgaard’s “fictional autobiography”, while Ferrante’s novels are pretty conventional (which might be why I liked reading them).

Still, the comparisons write themselves, and while I’m pleasantly surprised that The New Yorker implied Ferrante and Knausgaard are two titans with a “radically opposed” visions of human condition in the vein of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (because I like generalisations swooping across the ages), their analysis doesn’t quite satisfy me. Of course, there is a deeper meaning in Ferrante and Knausgaard’s books, related to violence, growing up and mundane everyday lives. But the more superficial aspects of their work and personas deserve to be presented as the full of contrasts clickbait material which they are. Karl Ove writes about his own life in ruthless detail, Elena writes potentially autobiographical fiction. While we see photos of Karl Ove’s ruggedly handsome face on the covers of his books, we have no idea about Elena’s looks – she might even be a male author using a female pseudonym. Karl Ove lives in Norway and Sweden, the lands of grey skies, cold winters and IKEA, Elena lives in Italy, the land of loud conversations, good food and a lot of sun. These are cliches, but marketing loves them, and while Ferrante’s covers show sunny weddings, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere presented My Struggle as a twisted addition to the hygge trend.

The biggest difference, however, has to do with my favourite topic (other than random cultural consumption): politics. Largely absent from Knausgaard’s novels, politics provide most of the context and much of the plot in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle. Knausgaard writes about his personal relationships and artistic struggles, and at first the life of Ferrante’s supposed alter ego, Elena Greco, seems to be filled with exactly that. She’s a lover, a writer and a mother, more or less in that order. But Elena’s relationships, studies and publications are often just reflections of her biggest desire: to escape the poverty and violence of the place where she comes from, a working class neighbourhood in Naples. For many years she studies, extremely disciplined, at schools which almost no one from her neighbourhood attends, to finally become the only local university graduate. Among the people left behind is her best friend forever, Lila, whose family is slightly poorer than Elena’s. The twelve year old Lila has to help her parents with work and isn’t allowed to attend the middle school, despite her almost supernatural intelligence. The reader has no doubt that she’s the “brilliant friend” from the title – until at some point, when she’s sixteen and about to get married, Lila implores Elena: don’t end up like me, study to do great things: you’re my brilliant friend.

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Ferrante’s books are in fact a readable analysis of social classes shaping people’s lives. There’s the obvious layer of this analysis, in which Elena, Lila and their friends represent the working class; rich teachers and professors like the Galianis and Airotos are a sort of bourgeois intelligentsia; the factory owner Soccavo is a textbook capitalist; some people situate themselves on the borders of these distinctions, like the third most important character of the cycle, the womanising arriviste Nino Sarratore. But within these categories individual decisions lead to more complex consequences. After the initial tragedy of stopping with her education, Lila has to deal with a restless mind, symbolising all the potential unrealised because of her various struggles. Elena, who compares herself to the spoiled youth of the higher classes, discovers that she spent most of her life studying only to achieve what others have gotten as if it was their natural right. Even though at some point Lila’s uniqueness manifests itself as striking physical beauty, Elena observes that the girls from the higher classes possess charm and grace which neither she nor Lila will ever have. Nothing can replace Elena and Lila’s childhood dream of getting rich, and while both of them admire characters devoted to some other goal – be it communism or science – by the end of the last book we realise that even these characters have no influence on the violent chaos in their neighbourhood, Naples, Italy and, ultimately, the world.

In Knausgaard’s novels, the chaos is hidden within: deep in people’s minds, but also behind the curtains of their bourgeois homes. Karl Ove barely has any financial problems. Unlike Ferrante’s heroines, who work hard to survive for the majority of their lives, the reckless Norwegian is penniless only once, as a result of a spontaneous and therefore terribly planned hitchhiking trip to Greece. In the later years, he might run out of his student credit money, but he can always borrow cash from his brother or immediately find a well-paid summer job on an oil platform. Despite the unemployment of his wife, he earns enough with his writing to support her and their three small children, while still having time to do his share of the household tasks. From an economic point of view, such welfare is like a dream come true – but naturally Knausgaard progresses to the hell of post-material values.

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The huge trauma in Karl Ove’s life is caused by his father, a mysterious man who terrorises his young sons with strict rules and punishments, but ultimately succumbs to alcoholism later in his life. Ferrante’s novels are full of characters far more violent than Knausgaard’s father: rapists, terrorists and murderers. Yet the only reaction we really see from her main characters is yet more passion, yet more attempts to escape or remove oneself from the cruel reality. Knausgaard is different: he’s a self-conscious narrator, a man on a mission to describe an intimate, real version of himself. Reading about his childhood, I remembered the uneasy feeling of breaking something in the house, or not studying, and awaiting my parents’ reaction. Heartbreakingly, little Karl Ove remains in that uneasy state most of the time. During his student years, he often gets embarrassingly drunk and exposes his emotions, sometimes in an auto-destructive way. He cuts his face after romantic rejections, which at first seems shocking, but is explained in the last book of the series: Karl Ove looks just like his father. Instead of creating a panorama of the society, or at least a portrait of one social class, Knausgaard follows the remark of Gombrowicz – that one should write about oneself, since that is the only topic one really knows – and takes it to its very extreme. I almost accepted that personal focus halfway through the sixth novel, relaxed by the descriptions of Knausgaard’s summer family life, when suddenly the political subtext turned into a text in long pages of author’s musings about Adolf Hitler.

People discussing the first volumes of My Struggle were quick to dismiss the title as a meaningless provocation, unwilling to assume that an adult, respected writer would stain his life story by evoking Nazism. Yet on the more contemplative pages of these earlier novels Knausgaard already shows himself to be a particular kind of erudite, someone who didn’t stop his literary education on contemporary writers but followed the paths of their historical inspiration. That’s why we get to know his thoughts on Hoelderlin, Hamsun and a couple of less famous, mostly Scandinavian, authors. Through these references and Karl Ove’s conversations with his friends (most of them called Geir), we discover him to be a polar opposite of Ferrante’s classically trained author and mother, Elena. While Elena writes her first book, a fictionalised account of her rape-y first time, in a month before finishing an excellent humanist scholarly thesis, Karl Ove struggles for years with his studies and writing to finally debut with a fictionalised account of his 18 year old teacher self’s affection for a 13 year old pupil. His political consciousness is barely existent unless he ponders on cultural issues: the immigrants in his town, his emasculation as a caring father, the Americanised celebrations at his kids’ school. In other words, he only cares about the political which is very, very personal – to him. And that brings us back to Hitler.

I’ve read Knausgaard’s long essay on Hitler’s youth in the middle of book six with great interest, probably because I went through a period of fascination with Nazi Germany when I was 17 and reading about people like Ernst Hanfstaengl brought a lot of deeply buried knowledge back to the surface of my mind. That could be the difference between me and the numerous reviewers who criticised the essay for its length and lack of connection with the rest of the story. That critique was also voiced in Polish reviews, written by people who, just like me, grew up with the ever present shadow of the 2nd World War and Shoah hanging over our rebuilt cities. I understand that even the Polish education system won’t make everyone a Nazi history expert, but my own interest grew from the stories of terrible crimes I’ve learned at school, and the equally terrible absence of Jews in Poland, Jews who made up 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population. Knausgaard also starts with Nazi crimes, by analysing a poem by Paul Celan, and with his personal Norwegian experience of the past: finding a copy of Mein Kampf in his grandpa’s attic. Beginning with a description of the young Hitler, someone destitute and unhappy, and his times, times when people deeply respected culture and patriotic sacrifice, Knausgaard looks at himself, a relatively miserable youth, young man and a grown-up in times when sublime ideals seem to be forgotten by the general populace. He muses on the feeling of “we”, the national enthusiasm that Nazis were able to evoke, and observes with surprise his own feeling of unity with the Norwegian nation mourning after Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack. What he looks for in the past are not simple parallels between himself, Hitler and their fathers, as many reviewers seem to suggest, but some wisdom about how the yearning for unity with other people, for erasing the “I” with “we”, can lead to monstrosities once the singular “you” disappears and the plural “you” becomes a hated out-group. And that’s important to Knausgaard, since he sees that yearning in himself and suspects many people share it. That’s where the personal turns into the very political in his novels, although it might be a different, more overly emotional kind of politics than the partisan shambles we’re used to.

As a writer, Knausgaard gives up some of his rights as an individual in order to share his relatively ordinary story with the readers. And his books are most fascinating when he focuses on his relationships with other people, most of them driven by his desire to be liked and loved while he believes he isn’t worthy of such affection. He wrote the My Struggle books because he was a writer and couldn’t come up with any good fiction, sure, but sometimes they read like a long cry for attention and a justification for his shortcomings and wrongdoings. Of course, the results are problematic on the personal level, with strangers on planes inquiring about the health of Knausgaard’s children and his wife suffering from manic and depressive episodes after reading his manuscripts. But doesn’t being famous and acclaimed just mean that a whole lot of people like you?

The starkest contrast between Knausgaard and Ferrante would then be Knausgaard making himself a significant character of his novels, while Ferrante hides as an author and her main characters want to hide or escape. It’s the question of the society holding some promise in reaching out to each other and sharing our traumas or being a violent, scary structure, one that brings more and more suffering to individuals doing their best. In this comparison, Ferrante is Dostoevsky, only there’s no God waiting to save the sinners. From the very beginning her novels are a biography, written by the narrator-character Elena about her friend Lila, a brilliant heroine who puts up a fight and then realises the fight can’t be won. In her God-like role of an author, the more fortunate Elena believes she’s right to go against Lila’s deepest wish (even though she knows Lila is the wiser one): the wish to disappear. Both cycles are thus unexpected biographies of “common people” which, instead of dissolving their heroes in the anonymous “we”, form a narrative mirror reflecting the past decades of human struggles.

 

 

 

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It’s Not You, It’s the System; Or How Competition Brings Us Down

(Sort of a rant today – I tried to edit it, but in the end I decided to leave it as it is)

 

When I was about fourteen, us girls were separated from boys during PE classes since my school only had one proper outdoor field. Our male classmates had biology while we played football outside. After an hour we switched. I’m not entirely aware of all the planning behind it, but one day this separation inspired our biology teacher to conduct a funny experiment.

‘I’m dividing you into groups,’ she said. ‘You need to prepare questions for the other groups, based on the chapters you had to read for today, and your answers will be graded.’

When the teacher left us alone for a moment, we quickly agreed to make the questions as easy as possible without turning the whole thing into a farce. Predictably, all groups answered correctly and got the highest possible grade.

‘Okay, now tell me,’ said the teacher at the end of the class, ‘did you make the questions so easy on purpose?’ We nodded nervously. ‘No, your grades are valid, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just interesting, because each of the boys’ groups assumed they had to be better than other groups. They prepared difficult questions and most of them got low grades.’

That, apparently, was the famous male competitiveness. We were more or less aware of it; at least I was grateful for being female during PE classes, since while sucking at almost all sports was embarrassing for a girl, it could lead to serious bullying and a low social status for a boy. Fortunately, we were entering the age when most of the girls “forgot their sport clothes” or claimed to suffer from 3-weeks-long periods just to avoid physical activity. We also regularly escaped from the swimming pool trips. Many of us were lazy or just not very enthusiastic about the prospect of cold chlorinated water during the freezing Warsaw winters. Some, however, were ashamed of how they looked in a swimming suit: they thought they were fat. Even though, logically, exercise can help with losing weight, the shame outweighted that logic.

Most of the theory I consciously support now is just explaining stuff I experienced semi-consciously in my life. Thus when many years later I read some radical feminist piece about beauty standards acting as a sort of “divide and rule” tool applied by men on women, I didn’t need much convincing. Of course, there’s no secret conspiracy involving all male people; but the feeling of inferiority most women experience looking at their objectively healthy bodies remains very real. Often it’s not a man who makes a woman feel like shit, but another woman – I know a girl who, after hearing someone complimenting another woman’s looks, will inevitably reply with something like “Oh, but she must be very stupid.” We might not be socialised to compete in class or on the field as much as men, but we are not free from always wanting to be better than others according to arbitrary criteria we rarely question.

I was shocked when a friend told me, with a disillusioned tone implying she’d heard too many secrets, that half of the girls in my high school year had bulimia. I was shocked when one after one of my friends told me they felt stupid, that they were never good enough, that they were depressed because of many reasons, many of them relating to their academic performance, precarious careers, failures of their love lives. But the biggest shock came when I realised I was constantly comparing myself to others – and I was doing stuff I hated, applying for jobs I didn’t want and considering partners I couldn’t connect to just because I didn’t want to be worse than them, in this or another frankly absurd way. I was stressed, sleep deprived and irritated, hating the products of my frantic work and ashamed to celebrate any success, be it learning a new language or graduation, because I didn’t see these successes as successful enough: there were always people speaking the language more fluently or graduating with a higher GPA.

As much as I want to get rid of it, I’m still too competitive and ambitious, which invariably leads to harmful perfectionism and procrastination. Many of my problems stem from the fact that while I consider myself an interesting person according to my own criteria, I have this nagging feeling that I’m boring compared to others, in other people’s eyes. I’m not even sure when, where and why I began being anxious about it. Most importantly, I don’t get why that scale of being interesting, or the scales of being beautiful or successful are ingrained so deeply in my head. Surely I should be able to say ‘I’m done’ when I’m actually done, and start a new life on a sustainable goat squat-farm writing poetry. But I can’t, and my ‘drive’, instead of motivating me to write amazing poetry here and now, just brings this anxiety of not doing well enough which I, and probably many of you, try to silence using the drug of trashy culture as well as actual drugs.

Maybe the pervasiveness of toxic competition can be explained by our individualistic economy and its cultural manifestations. There can’t be one national healthcare system when multiple companies will do better, hundreds of people within these companies taking extra hours to get promoted. At the same time, the popular superhero movies (a trashy cultural distraction I often enjoy) rehash the fantasies about a group of special individuals who can save the world. Despite these illusions, it’s precisely the people with most power standing in the way of world-saving: people who will rather keep their bonuses high than stop polluting the earth or feeding the weapon industry. At least you can make yourself feel better by spending a percentage of these ridiculous sums on charity. But the power will stay in your hands, if you succeed. Whether it’s the power to buy a private jet or afford health insurance doesn’t matter that much, since the same rules apply: you need to perform better than others in order to obtain but a tiniest fracture of power.

Young girls know very well that they’re judged on their appearance, and most of us assume that without certain – what? – qualifications an uncertain future of ‘flexible’ jobs and overpriced necessities awaits us. Of course, many mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but our environment and activities trigger difficult episodes. Even though our brains have remained largely unchanged for centuries, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Looking around me, I see many people being happy despite rather than because of their studies or work – the main focus of their lives. That biology class was the only time I remember when I was rewarded not for my individual knowledge or achievements, but rather for collaborating with others for the gain of all. Later, I encountered more and more difficult questions and challenges I had to answer alone, knowing very well that if I can’t face them, the next ones will only become more daunting due to the previous failures.

I’m not surprised that I’m happiest doing voluntary work, be it advising people on plant care or political activism. I know people failing their studies who amass a lot of extra (thus, ’useless’) knowledge in their free time, as well as those who anonymously contribute to impressive online projects. A lot of motivation appears once someone isn’t forced to perform in a certain way, and other people are there as collaborators rather than competitors. But these situations are rare exceptions, cool class projects rather than stressful exams. Without changing the way our work and livelihood are determined, we can’t free ourselves from the stress and anxieties of modern life.

The deceived children of the EU

On the 1st of May 2004 Poland joined the European Union, together with some other countries which we called “Central-Eastern European”, but which for the rest of the world were just Eastern Europe: the former Eastern Bloc. I was 10 years old. At my primary school we performed songs about Europe and had a special “European education” class, during which we prepared presentations about the EU countries, full of food trivia. The classrooms were decorated in yellow and dark blue.

I liked the colours and the starry flag, and when I turned 12 I became obsessed with Ode to Joy. I was fascinated with German culture out of sheer spite, because yes, Polish kids still thought German was a Nazi language – at least until they went on holiday and befriended German kids who weren’t Nazis, or became fans of Tokio Hotel. We could choose between German and French classes, and French annoyed me since everyone thought it was pretty (I was a tween contrarian supporting underdog languages). I chose German and soon I was listening to Beethoven instead of Tokio Hotel, partially because the plays by Friedrich Schiller (the author of the original Ode to Joy poem) were my chosen edgy alternative to the literary escapism of fantasy books, and partially because I found the 9th Symphony simply really, really beautiful. My dad had the 1963 Karajan recording and I was shocked to discover that there was more music after the initial “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” chorus. Once I got used to the operatic singing, I started listening to opera and then reading 19th century novels, and that’s why I had no social life for the next few years. I should’ve chosen French.

Meanwhile, the Polish pope, also known as the Pope among Polish people, died. My family wasn’t that religious – we didn’t even go to church every Sunday – but suddenly I found myself on the streets of Warsaw with thousands of shocked people, on a very warm April day after his death was announced. I was suffering from eczema so severe that I told my aunt and grandma: “It itches so terribly, I want to die”. They immediately told me off – and rightly so, but it’s their argument I remember: “How can you say something like that, when the Pope has just died, and he was very sick. You should be ashamed. He was suffering so much.”

Suffering. The Pope died in 2005 and exactly five years later, in April 2010, the Polish presidential plane crashed in Russia, near Smolensk, killing the president, his wife and many other worthy people on board, including politicians from all kinds of parties, left to right wing. Of course the right, led by the twin brother of the dead president, immediately announced that the crash was in fact a planned Russian attack. Once again, I was on the sunny streets of Warsaw’s Old Town. But this time, the vague sense of community which I felt with people attending the mass after pope’s death evaporated. A huge crowd was gathering at the presidential palace, waiting for the coffins to arrive, forming a queue to the condolence book. It was exciting; I ran into people I knew, including a former classmate who was now a member of a scouts team helping at the event. I brought him a sandwich from a nearby cafe, and he let me in to an emptier area close to the palace, not accessible even to the media. I looked at the crowd from the other side of the barriers, as I stood among exhausted people assisted by the scouts. At that moment, I didn’t know it for sure, but many could predict that this tragedy will divide Poland even further in the upcoming years. Since then, the supporters of the dead president’s party have been gathering in front of that palace for a monthly vigil and “defended” a wooden cross that the municipality wanted to move away. The events were so grotesque that you wanted to laugh at them, unless you saw these people in person: praying, unhappy, almost always old, often poor. Five years after the catastrophe, in 2015, their party won the election in landslide, forming a government by itself, and the cross vigils have been joined by a delegation of soldiers.

In 2010, I still identified as a Catholic, but I didn’t understand the people who thought Russians were behind the plane crash, just like I didn’t see how all Germans could be inherently Nazi. (True to myself, I chose to learn Russian instead of French in high school.) Gone was the sense of belonging that I felt as a 13 year old, writing that emigrants are traitors (I went through a literature-fueled nationalist phase) or reading the news about my city, Warsaw, religiously (I made a layout for my blog using a photo of a Warsaw bus). The entire history, both of the country and of my city, was full of suffering: wars, uprisings, genocide. The politicians were constantly arguing about history, about this or another holy memory of ever suffering heroes – almost exclusively soldiers – which wasn’t sufficiently honoured. Suffering doesn’t make much sense unless you explain it with some convoluted ideology, such as Christianity. And I couldn’t tolerate the hierarchy, patriarchy and homophobia of the Church any more. By 2012, I just wanted to leave, aimless, frustrated and not appreciating my idyllic high school years: I left the entire country behind.

But there was another option. I stopped listening to opera that often, but I still thought that Ode to Joy was more beautiful than any national anthem. My support for the European Union remained unquestioned even as my political views became more and more radically left wing. Here the Western Europeans might need some explanation: in Poland, the EU is unambiguously left wing. It is not only bureaucratic and infringing upon national sovereignty, it is a symbol of a foreign, Marxist world populated by “vegetarians and cyclists” (to borrow the words of the current Polish foreign affairs secretary). The economic nature of the EU as a common market isn’t very relevant here, as most of the Polish political discussion remains on a vague ideological level. (Similarly to this post, which somewhat validates the post-truth approach to politics, as emotions keep shaping the way in which I perceive facts.)

Many have repeated, throughout the years, that the EU needs a common sense of identity; I have been upholding that view, even going beyond the EU, thinking about the entire “Western world” in the context of terrorism and immigration. This identity should be based on values, which I took straight from Ode to Joy (and some other old stuff I’ve read, all related in my mind): equality, solidarity, freedom (but defined in terms of the former two). Democracy, economic well-being, fighting real issues such as the climate change. And, to be effective, fighting against the people and organisations which stood in the way of achieving these idealistic goals and caused suffering: the multinationals, the 1%, you know what I mean. Thanks to the EU, its vague aim of peacekeeping, its many subsidies and international institutions, I had a political body with which I could identify, not only that, for which I planned to work in the future. In the end, it wasn’t only the poor Warsaw or Poland that I supported – it was all the losers of this world.

You might remember that I’m a leftist (a socialist, to be precise) and you’re probably also aware that, at least in Western Europe, many left wing organisations oppose the EU as an undemocratic, neoliberal project – look at Greece, look at Germany, etc. Add the intra-EU migration, right wing populists gaining popularity and the whole thing gets messy. The EU as something very different from a nation state is difficult to address at the level of national politics. It seems distant, and yes, elitist – something that many of my potential friendly readers, internationally educated young people, may find a bit puzzling. For them, and to be fair for me, European institutions can be as accessible as the national ones. Indeed, there is a certain freedom associated with the fact that you can contact them, influence them and work for them unaffected by the salary differences between your country and the richer, post-colonialist ones. Your diploma, CV and language skills are the only limits.

Here I would like to describe a certain memory which started nagging me while I pondered these issues. At some point in middle school or high school, in a Polish literature or history class, one of my teachers drew a figure on the board – as you can see, I really don’t remember the situation, except for the figure itself:

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(I added the words “Country A”, “Country B”, “The Elite” and “The ~Peopl[e]” myself for clarity.) The figure was an extremely simplified representation of the society before the nation state and industrial evolution: the aristocracy and other elites such as academics or traders could communicate and exchange ideas across the country borders – indeed, they had a status-based sense of community, with various noble families marrying across the continent. The ordinary people, meanwhile, couldn’t read or write and spoke some local dialects, which weren’t respected in the higher spheres. Naturally, there was no sense of community between a nobleman and a peasant.

This changed when the nation states were constructed, more or less according to the following scheme:

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The common language, tradition, history and whatever else is included in the symbolic mixture of a nation state is supposed to connect us all and make us different from people born in the other countries, so that we can be convinced to fight in wars for the vague ideal of a nation. At the same time, education and social mobility improve greatly, diminishing the divide between the privileged and the rest.

However, already in the 19th century Marxists simplified the society in a different way (this figure wasn’t brought up by the teacher):

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The people, or the proletarians, have a common interest in fighting the oppression of the elites, the bourgeoisie. The national community these two groups might share with each other doesn’t matter, as the society is divided along the class lines. That’s why Rosa Luxemburg’s party wanted international revolution rather than independence for Poland (something that puzzled me greatly at school).

Of course, the end goal of Marxists (and many others with utopian tendencies) looks more like this:

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But how do these schemes relate to the European Union? We need to keep in mind the competing identities associated with our nationality, social class and the EU itself.

The working title (lol) of this post was “Can the EU be a left-wing project?” – and this is the question which, after this lengthy self-centered story, I would like to investigate. At the heart of the leftist ideology lies the idea of fighting the capitalist exploitation, and, with the capital globalised more than ever, production chains spanning several continents, one would expect internationalism of the left to become more and more crucial. Yet, almost all political parties – a party being the most effective and developed form of political organisation – operate at the national level. Even in the European Parliament, the MPs are elected from the lists of national parties. That makes sense, since most of the legislative power remains at the national level. But the biggest issues – climate, the refugee crisis, global hunger; from the leftist perspective, international exploitation and corporate power – are something far beyond the capacities of a single country. This is why some left wing and progressive movements still hope for a positive role of the EU, especially after demonstrations of its anti-corporate actions such as protecting our privacy from Google and stopping Apple’s tax evasion.

At the same time, the very foundation of the EU, the free movement of capital and people, is creating more and more inequalities across the continent. Read the first part of Marta Tycner’s amazing article for a description of how these huge migration flows (with 25% of Latvia’s population emigrating) influences both the Western, rich and Eastern, poorer countries, not to mention the already unstable South. Tycner is a euroenthusiast, proposing a European minimum wage and political rights for EU migrants in their country of residence as solutions. But how can we agree on such a minimum wage, when it would almost certainly mean lowering the already existing minimum wage in the West? Does it make sense to not only stop the migration, but even encourage it by more political rights, if that will bring down wages in the richer regions and motivate people to leave the poorer ones? The Polish leftists I know are surprised by the euroscepticism of the Western left, but once we realise that these parties operate, de facto, almost exclusively on the national level, we will understand their position. By criticising the free movement, they not only avoid the alienation of their natural electorate – the Western working class – but also remain pragmatic about the nature of the EU.

The EU is neoliberal. I have been blind to it for a long time, and you can read in the first paragraphs of this post why. My idealistic vision of the EU as a noble project was so strong that it took me a year at least to truly realise that the EU as an institution is pushing for TTIP, something I was actively campaigning against. And in the same way as the imagined community of a nation is often used to promote certain interests, the European community can be used – I am one of the children who have fallen for it.

Now, I don’t want to say that every person identifying with a certain nationality is a puppet of the capitalists, and that nothing good has ever come from the EU. The reality is much more nuanced. There are many good people working in effective EU institutions. But it will be of great benefit to the euroenthusiastic left to start approaching the EU pragmatically, and to ask honest questions about the degree of changes we would need to turn it into a leftist project. Sometimes, at a national level, our strategy may include going against the EU. Internationalism is a beautiful ideal, and we should stick to it, but in its current form the EU is contributing to all of the divisions in the figures above: between the nations and between the working class and the elites. Young, higher educated euroentusiasts often miss that, since, despite our precarious jobs and unsure future, in our minds we do belong to this internationally connected, flexible elite – even if one career misstep can remind us that we have a certain passport and very little money, and suddenly our career prospects turn out to be just another neoliberal illusion.

On the other hand, I do wonder where the eurosceptical leftists see their grassroots, working class structures that would be a viable alternative to the EU, or otherwise how do they plan to keep fighting in their crumbling nation states against the globalised capital. The current line of these leftists is to criticise the EU harshly while simultaneously focusing on the interest of the workers in their respective nation states. This is obviously a strategy intended to discourage people from supporting shallow right wing populists, which however doesn’t seem to have a long term goal.

It has always been difficult for the left to navigate the maps of identities, because most of us just respect people regardless of them. In the times of Trump and Brexit, it may seem bold enough to say that people should be able to earn a decent wage regardless of where they were born. But I’m afraid we need to work much harder, to come up, together, with a plan how to get to that point. In this endeavour, it is important to be both very sceptical about the tools we’re working with and enthusiastic about our work itself – to quote Gramsci, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned”.