Europe in perplexity

Pierre Rosanvallon
13 July 2004

Europe’s ideological climate has been transformed in recent years, and - contrary to appearances – not only the Iraq war is responsible. The differences that the war revealed between Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious “new” and “old” Europe have older and more profound origins. Indeed, the transatlantic divisions that erupted around Iraq had long been a factor in international relations and a marker of growing divergence between western political cultures.

Thus, to understand Europe’s condition now requires a longer perspective than Iraq alone provides – one framed by the search for a new European identity after 1989, when the end of the cold war put the rationale and future of the Atlantic alliance in question.

The Iraq war, in short, has had an accelerating, polarising and revelatory effect on developments which had already been unfolding for a long period. In doing so it has helped clarify a European intellectual landscape whose new frontlines have emerged from the completion of three great historical cycles.

Three cycles of history

The first cycle rested on the Keynesian model, which since 1945 constituted the horizon of the economic development and social cohesion of European societies. This model reached its end in the 1970s.

The second cycle, arising in political response to the end of the Keynesian period, is the anti-totalitarian movement. This came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The third cycle, in reaction to the series of problems (political, economic, strategic) that have arisen since 1989, organises itself around the European project. Today, there are signs that Europe is approaching the end of this third cycle, one that may represent also the end of a distinctively European response to our continent’s political problems.

Europe today appears less a solution than the root of a problem. This is why for several years one of the most striking aspects of the European project has been the sort of “defensive intelligence” that guards it.

These contemporary, long-term developments determine the shape of the current European intellectual landscape, but it is the Iraq crisis that has most clearly revealed its contours. Iraq, in brief, has confirmed the end of the anti-totalitarian moment that played a central ideological role in the 1970s and 1980s and linked a whole intellectual and political family in the west.

There has been a strong temptation to see in al-Qaida a new form of terrorism capable of reconstituting this old western front. But in Europe the anti-terrorism fight has not given rise, at least for the moment, to a political and intellectual front comparable to 1970s-80s anti-totalitarianism; and the sharp differences between the successive adversaries (Soviet communism and al-Qaida) make such an outcome unlikely.

Terrorism represents neither an innovative political and social form nor a new type of state regime. Terrorist action links non-political behaviour (nihilist destruction) and a culture of resentment; it “connects” with the other in an insanely violent way, and is not bound to the formulation of any utopia or any project of self-construction.

The Iraq crisis, too, has accelerated the emergence of new (or revived) reactionary ideologies. These are founded on fears and constructs linked in particular to the west’s relationship with Islam, which appears in this case as the core problem of which terrorism is only the most visible and dramatic expression.

These reactionary ideologies have been manifest in the affirmation of a new fear of multiculturalism. This was highlighted recently in France with the debate about the Islamic veil in schools, where a visibly hardening neo-republican ideology spread beyond its habitual bases and areas of influence. This fear of multiculturalism tends to dissolve the classic frontiers between right and left.

Such ideologies are similarly visible in the development of a neo-populism that articulates an opposition between the “rooted nation” or the “majority culture” and the world external to it. This phenomenon coincides quite clearly with the success of the far right: it has become linked more generally to discussions about immigration, the welfare state and social fragmentation. In several European countries these discussion have agitated and compromised centrist political parties.

The revival of “declinism” is a further example of the flourishing of reactionary ideologies. Born at the end of the 19th century, reinforced in the 1920s by the impact of Oswald Spengler, today it has acquired renewed vigour and lends its vocabulary to a sceptical questioning of the future.

Alongside these regressive tendencies, the current era of wars and crises has revealed an endemic interest in political theories of exceptionalism. It is notable that in Europe, in being applied to the description of supposedly new forms of domination, these have fuelled the revitalisation of ideologies of the extreme left. Its intellectual partisans denounce capitalism and imperialism not on an economic basis but in terms of an absolute “decisionism”, or (as in Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the biopolitical imprint) as incarnations of radial control.

This tendency is reflected also in the fashionability of Carl Schmitt’s ideas of a state of urgency, and of the attractions of a new philosophy of action. Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Toni Negri, and (with a different emphasis) Peter Sloterdijk can be understood in the perspective of an ambivalence that links their “leftism” to a fascination with chosen mechanisms of political control.

Behind these ideas is the force of a profound emotional current, what might be described as a certain “moment of blame” (as in Pascal Bruckner’s 1983 book, Le sanglot de l’homme blanc / The Sob of the White Man). These perspectives do not offer a fresh project for democracy in Europe.

A confused landscape

The key challenge for democratic thinking today, beyond the everyday life of democratic societies, is to combine an analysis of resentment towards the west with a redefinition of north-south relations and international relations. The “politics of human rights”, which had been at the core of the anti-totalitarian struggle, cannot itself suffice to organise a democratic vision of international relations.

In the 1990s, the foremost problem of the world community was to articulate human rights and nation-building (as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, East Timor). This remains an important objective. But after 9/11 at latest, it cannot see fundamentalist movements or tyrannical regimes as in effect perversions of democratic modernity (as totalitarian regimes often were). Rather, it must understand a complex mosaic of contemporary situations where movements and societies fuelled by resentment are locked into a contradictory relationship with modernity.

The modern world, which once understood its divisions as a confrontation between rational models, is now structured by a double schism: a confrontation of passions alongside the questioning of modernity itself.

In the coming months, discussions of the future of Europe and about the entry of Turkey into the European Union will concentrate many of these problems. This will underline the fact that Europe today is above all perplexed, uncertain of the paths which it needs to take in order to formulate a new idea of progress and of the international order.

In this regard, the crisis of European-American relations since September 2002 has revealed on the European side one thing above all: the difficulties of Europe in its relationship with itself.

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