Breaching the long litany of unlesses: a response to Simon Glendinning’s ‘Saving Europe from salvation'

The risk to Europe is a perpetuation of crisis by implacable erosion, and with this the abdication of political institutions from protecting the interests of citizens that they are responsible for and to.

Darian Meacham Francesco Tava
27 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

  Memorial de los judíos asesinados en Europa.

Memorial de los judíos asesinados en Europa. Flickr/Javier Pedreira. Some rights reserved. When a Frenchman, for example, says to other Frenchmen “The country is done for” — which has happened, I should think, almost every day since 1930 — it is emotional talk; burning with love and fury, the speaker includes himself with his fellow-countrymen. And then, usually, he adds “Unless …”

Last November we published what, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we called a manifesto for a Post-Europe Project, “Life After Europe”. Upon the appearance of this piece we asked the philosopher Simon Glendinning to offer up a critique of our 'manifesto', and he did: “Saving Europe From Salvation.”

Simon’s critique gives us the opportunity to clarify some points and also to offer a response to his argument - and most of all his contention that we too fall victim to the formulation of “Europe is done for... unless”.  

This pattern of thinking is captured wittily in the above quote by Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Sartre contrasts the Frenchman to Fanon, who viewed Europe’s terminal illness with the diagnostic distance of a medical doctor (one of which Fanon was). In short, Fanon’s work and his assessment of Europe’s crisis was a diagnosis not a lament.

The post-European perspective

So first, clarification: what, more precisely, does post-Europe mean? At the end of his analysis of the crisis of modern civilisation, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka whose work has functioned like something of a pivot for our project, tries to sum up his reflections by asking himself several questions that can also be applied to the present European situation. The story of how we interpret this term, ‘post-Europe’, is best told through Patočka’s own story.

According to Patočka’s interpretation, the European political project started in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the creation of a new type of political entity – one based on a hypertrophic accumulation of power, whose control would be entrusted to a series of technical devices aimed at the complete rationalisation of this same power. This project, he thought, was what had ended in breakdown.

In this sense Patočka’s diagnosis of the European condition is closer to Fanon’s than Sartre’s sentimental Frenchman. Any attempt to establish this kind of control, to normalise all the irrational elements that always exercise their pressure on the political sphere, seems useless, as new underground forces continuously appear, calling the entire established structure into question. Europe, he says while giving clandestine seminars in 1975 Prague during the period referred to as “normalisation”, is finished as a political and civilisational project. It’s too late for the ‘unless’ . 

The breakdown of the European project is manifested by the Great Wars of the Twentieth-Century. Their aftermath was marked by a dramatic segmentation of the European political space. Here was a space which, until that moment, was the preferred scene for a majority of the political projects of domination and unification that have emerged in the last few centuries, including the various attempts of the European states to establish their hegemony over the continent, from the wars of succession during the first half of eighteenth century until the Napoleonic wars. As a consequence of the large conflicts of the twentieth century, however, that scene, as well as its main actors, had radically changed. New forces emerged (the USA and USSR) which Patočka called Europe’s “hypertrophic heirs”.

It was the Cold War between these two new dominant powers that would characterise the second part of the last century. What did not change, however, was the method these new actors adopted: the same aforementioned accumulation of power and rationalisation of control mechanisms, yet on an even higher scale. Already in the 1950s, Patočka pointed to what he saw as a fundamental analogy between the “kingdom of managers” (i.e. capitalist states) and the USSR’s bureaucraticism - a point that is not at all uncontroversial, but also not uncommon amongst conservative European thinkers of the period. 

Given this situation, recognizing this particular pathology of power, which apparently threatens us with Europe’s final collapse as a historical and political entity, one could expect from a philosopher some kind of “unless”; a prognosis, a smart recipe, following which the total collapse could be finally forestalled.

Curiously Patočka does not do anything of the kind, and not only because he disdained the role of superhero, but simply because he believes that the crisis of contemporary super-civilisation, the inner conflicts which hinder its functioning, do not determine the end of this political formation. The civilisation in crisis seems perfectly able to survive, despite its severe, successive crises, not by fixing, but rather by perpetuating its internal contradictions, and acquiring thus a more and more sclerotic shape.

What Patočka probably had in mind, in conceiving this long-lasting state of crisis, was the condition of the countries of central and eastern Europe, in which the enthusiastic impulse towards the realisation of socialism, was gradually converted into a sort of stifling political morass. In a more general sense, we can see how Patočka’s thought is anything but eschatological: the crisis of history does not mean the end of history. Crisis can be endless, notwithstanding all the superheros who strive to accelerate its progress.

The concept of ‘post-Europe’, conceived twenty years later, after the failure of the Prague spring, which can be considered as the last chance to kickstart once again the flooded engine of rational civilisation, presents similar traits. Post-Europe is not something which stems from Europe’s ashes, by means of a liberating rebirth. As Patočka himself clearly states, Post-Europe is still within Europe; it does not represent, an exit or an escape from the crisis, but on the contrary a sharper insight into it, from a newly-achieved perspective, by means of which one can strive to take a distance from the crisis, not with the aim of being set free from its oppression, but rather with the purpose of getting a better vision of it, like a city can be better watched from an isolated peak.

What we want to propose, by actualising the idea of post-Europe, is something akin to this particular interpretation. We don’t think Europe needs salvation, because we don’t see any forthcoming apocalypse. The crisis which is currently afflicting Europe, and the European Union in particular, is something deeper and subtler than a sword of Damocles looming over our heads. The risk is precisely a perpetuation of this crisis, by means of a slow and implacable erosion of fundamental European national and transnational (EU) political instruments; and with this erosion the inability and/or unwillingness of political institutions to protect the interests of the citizens that they are responsible for and to.

These instruments essentially are the legitimacy of European political power, the effectiveness of political action, as well as its role in a globalised world in which it seems  unable to maintain a clear position, placed at the behest of its “hypertrophic heirs”, which meanwhile have considerably multiplied not only into other state actors, but also transnational, non-state, and corporate entities.

Unless? What philosophy can do in this situation is not to try to find a solution, elaborating a more or less plausible series of “unlesses”. That is perhaps the role of normative political theory. Political philosophy should instead elaborate a critique of this crisis, de-constructing its functioning, problematising its presuppositions and hidden characteristics, and of course also imagining another idea of politics, but understanding it not as a possible escape, but rather as a way to look at our present from a different perspective, while never truly getting out of it.

In this sense, we think the concept of post-Europe and the post-European perspective is a useful (not unique) tool for approaching the current European crisis. We thank Simon Glendinning for his very thoughtful critique of our project and explaining his doubts on this key point. We hope that we have clarified a point of agreement, that the plea for a post-European perspective cannot function by providing yet another in the long litany of ‘unlesses’, but rather by offering a negative perspective that does not promise a solution, but only the possibility of breaking open those material ideas which hold us and indeed Europe in crisis. 

Transformation not transfer of power

That said, we must also concede a point to Glendinning. We did indeed argue that in order to meet the needs of its citizens, the European political space - the sphere of the European Union - must be transnationalised.

Here we agree with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas that certain aspects of globalisation threaten the ability of the state to guarantee social welfare and security and hence the ability of citizens to participate as equals, as well as the ability of states to make political (legitimate) decisions about aspects of life that affect their own citizens (in Dagmar Wilhelm’s words).

It is, of course, not just globalisation that threatens the ability of nation-states to protect the interests of their citizens. It now seems that many nation states are no longer in that business at all. In the current European political situation, the threat to well-being and human flourishing comes as much from within as without, in the form of a kind of economic rationality that dominates all spheres of life, seeing efficiency, competitiveness, growth, expansion and accumulation as ends in themselves rather than means – means that might be rethought if they are no longer effective mechanisms for ensuring, developing and maintaining a flourishing demos.

These problems in fact seem to multiply themselves at the European level, rather than dissipating. Indeed, it may be in Brussels where the cost-effectiveness of corporate and other interest group lobbying is best interrogated. It is a given, for us, that for the European Project to succeed there must be reflection on the democratisation of the European institutions. As the political philosopher Thomas Pogge argues:

Citizens of the EU have very little meaningful influence on the political decisions made in their name by the centralized organs and agencies, such as the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament…ordinary citizens of the EU have had little meaningful influence on the designing of the emerging small politico- bureaucratic elite. And this elite decides, quite undemocratically, what sorts of democratizing modifications they are going to implement in order to reduce public hostility to their opaque and undemocratic rule. (Thomas Pogge, Politics as Usual, p.183)

We do however want to avoid giving any impression of European institutions acting with autonomy and against the interests and wills of the nation-states. The EU is still firmly in the power of the nation-states, though one would not know this from reading the Euro-skeptic media.    

With the imperative of democratisation in mind, there are no good reasons that the political will that supposedly rests at the core of the idea of the nation state cannot be reconstituted at a higher and indeed more effective level. Nations are not organic pre-political entities, but institutions. Similarly national solidarities are created, often as a bulwark against other forms of solidarity, namely the cross-border workers’ solidarity, in order to protect some interests over others. It is convenient for power in some instances to maintain the emotional bond that many people feel with a nation, rather than a community, city, region or trans-national entity.

There is of course a long way to go before anything like the affective relation that we call solidarity might be built up at the European level. As Michael Hauser points out, support for the European institutions seems to be declining not increasing. But this is precisely due to the feeling of alienation and a sense that the EU often has other things in mind than the flourishing of all citizens of the continent.

There are nonetheless transnational political movements developing across the continent. Sadly, some of these seem to be on the far-right, where xenophobia and racism against a supposed non-european other is the binding factor across nations. But equally, efforts are being made on the left, especially in those southern European nations hit hardest by the crisis, to build transnational movements rather than simply loose alliances. The Italian electoral list “L'Altra Europa con Tsipras”, which won three seats in the last European elections would be an example of this.     

Governing institutions function at many levels, some more devolved than others, but there are boundaries and those boundaries orient the function of institutions. The city of Bristol has no jurisdiction or competencies that would relate to the citizens of Milan (despite the two cities sharing certain challenges). The powers that govern Bristol are responsible for the well being and flourishing of the citizens and environment of Bristol. But it is of course the case that there are certain competencies that cannot be adequately dealt with at the level of local authorities. We, presumably, would not want Bristol raising its own army, negotiating exclusive and beneficial trade agreements with other sovereign states or having its own health service in competition with the rest of the United Kingdom. There are certain competencies that should be dealt with at higher levels.

We agree with Glendinning on this point. Where we may disagree is to what extent this is the case. To what degree should competencies be Europeanised. Our point is that what is needed to have this kind of discussion is a reflection on what the aims of governing institutions should be. Here, we appeal to a basic idea. The aim of governing institutions must above all be to ensure the capacity for citizens to flourish in a manner that allows for the fullest expression of human potential.  

Glendinning is absolutely correct, competencies cannot simply be transferred from national to transnational institutions. Nor is there, at present, much reason to think that this would be desirable. What we propose is that it may however become at least in some areas necessary, to ensure the future wellbeing of Europe’s peoples, and so that European institutions can play a constructive role in global affairs.

This will require a sea change in the orientation of our current political framework. Concrete suggestions, like strengthening the powers of the European Parliament are certainly a positive development. But we think that any reflections on the future of Europe will be greatly aided by a reflection on the relevance and role of concepts like ‘flourishing’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘care for the soul’, from a post-European perspective. Ideas are material and they matter.     


If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData