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Renewing the European ideal: the conquest of social fear

Instead of being a nostalgic admonition, the cry of ‘never again war’ has once again become acutely relevant for Europe.

The rape of Europa, by Jean Cousin. Wikimedia. PD.Until quite recently, it was widely presumed that ‘never again war’ had exhausted itself as a moral mission for Europe.

Many mainstream politicians, both on the left and right, have taken leave of high-strung ideals for an ‘ever closer’ political union, considering that Europe had better confine itself to down-to-earth concerns such as maintaining the single market, facilitating trade and regulating competition.

Europe, for them, no longer offered a lofty civilizational goal, but at best a pragmatic vehicle for generating prosperity and growth.

But in 2014, collective war memories in Europe once again flared up in the wake of the commemorations of the start of the First World War, rekindling fears that we could unintentionally stumble into a third one, as happened during the summer of 1914.

Beginning with the conflict in Ukraine, such fears have become more imminent and acute, especially since the missile attack on flight MH17. Since then, the threat of war has returned to Europe on an even larger and dangerous scale due to the Syrian war and IS-inspired terrorist attacks, mercilessly exposing the Union’s political weakness and intensifying the issue of collective European security.

Instead of being a nostalgic admonition, therefore, the cry of ‘never again war’ has once again become acutely relevant for Europe. The pax europeana has turned out to be more fragile than was widely assumed. But there is another, more forward-looking and uplifting reason why the dream of peace of the European founding fathers is far from being exhausted today.

Apart from representing Europe’s ‘primal scream’ and original mission, it still offers an inspiring vision of our common European identity as well as an attractive glance into a utopian future. 

Europe, of course, is much more than a (currently faltering) welfare and growth machine. It constitutes a lasting ideal, perhaps the most momentous civilizational ideal of our time. Civilization means that violence, cruelty, harassment and humiliation are as much as possible banned from society.

It requires that the power of the strong cedes before the right of the weak, and that fear gives way to trust. European civilization is the never-ending quest for a more gentle, more relaxed, more trustful and less dangerous society: a society in which people are no longer afraid of each other, of their institutions, and of themselves.

Evidently, this ideal is far from being realized within Europe itself, let alone in the harsher, more violent world beyond its borders. But if the aspiration of ‘never again war’ can be broadened in this way, beyond the eradication of direct physical violence among nation-states, in order to include the gradual diminution of institutional, moral and mental cruelty, a direct continuity is forged between the mission of Monnet and Schuman and current visions of Europe as a social safety zone where all citizens feel at home and have access to the means of living a good life. 

Such a deepening of the European peace mission may draw inspiration from the thought of the Belgian socialist politician Hendrik de Man (1885-1953). The author of The Psychology of Socialism (1926) could not think of a better formula for his brand of ‘cultural’ socialism than ‘the conquest of social fear’.

In his estimate, fears of the state had to a large extent subsided following the institution of liberal democracy; economic fears were likewise expected to recede if we would be able to put social restraints on capitalism. As a corollary, cultural and psychological fears would also tend to diminish: fears of the unknown and the aberrant, of dissenters, free-thinkers and deviants.

People would liberate themselves from the yoke of traditional ‘religions of fear’ and their equally dogmatic counterparts, the secular political ideologies (such as Marxism). Ultimately, a humanity would emerge which would be ‘freed from anxiety and hence from all forms of power as violence.’ 

Liberating people from fear is one of the most important conditions for making them independent, self-confident and free. Europe already has some purchase on this illustrious ideal. The top ten of countries whose citizens enjoy the largest amount of confidence in each other and their institutions is largely made up of European nations, with the Scandinavian ones and the Netherlands featuring in the top five.

It is no coincidence that they also enjoy the largest amount of social equality and offer individuals the best opportunities to rise up in the world and develop themselves, regardless of social origin.

The banking and sovereign debt crisis demonstrated that Europe remains far too vulnerable to the structural violence of the capitalist economy, particularly to the supremacy of what De Man called the ‘Wall of Money’. The right of the economically strongest has thrown many citizens, especially in the Southern states, into poverty and anxiety about the future.

The economic gap between North and South has considerably widened, due in part to the refusal of the dominant powers in Europe itself (Germany, the Troika, the Euro Group) to ease the politics of austerity. European civilization also implies European risk-sharing, solidarity and generosity. For the eurozone, this inevitably means that the currency union will function as a redistributive mechanism which evens out economic risks and opportunities between the richer states in the Northwest and the poorer ones in the Southeast. 

The soft tyranny of the market must be curbed by political means, but politics may in turn also slide into tyranny. Economic fears are still rampant in Europe, but so are fears of the state.

Some European democracies even exhibit proto-totalitarian tendencies, which no longer feed on naked repression but on the soft violence of the democratic majority. Italy during the Berlusconi cabinets, Hungary under Orbán, Slovakia under Fico, Poland between 2005 and 2007 and again since late 2015, offer examples of an illiberal ‘governmental populism’ which undermines the separation of powers, threatens the freedom of the press and the judiciary, and treats minorities and refugees with contempt.

In many Western European countries, populist parties in opposition likewise humiliate and criminalize minorities and asylum seekers, whip up the fear of strangers and rough up political morals with their swaggering self-certainty. Civilization also means that verbal and symbolic violence (the fanning of hatred) is banned as much as possible from society, without endangering the freedom of speech itself (which should never be identified with the licence to insult others). 

Instead of cultivating political nostalgia, the ‘never again war’ cry may therefore spark an offensive political imagination, which intensifies the ideal of European civilization and proudly upholds it to the rest of the world. The fortunate fact that several European generations have been spared first-hand experience of war turns them – ourselves – into a privileged exception, not only relative to all generations before 1945, but also to the everyday experience of violence and war in much of the non-Western world.

Undoubtedly, this promise and practice of freedom-in-security is what lends the European Union its huge power of seduction: a pulling power which is not only economic and political but also cultural and moral in nature.

This is an excerpt from the new book A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism. The book is available as a free download here.

About the author

Dick Pels is a Dutch sociologist and freelance political writer. He has taught at various Dutch and English universities, and was director of the research foundation of the Dutch Green Party until 2013. His website is www.dickpels.nl

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