Can Europe Make It?

“The EU is a first step”: an interview with Federico Campagna

Jamie Mackay talks to the writer and philosopher about the UK election result, the forthcoming referendum on EU membership and historic ideas of Europe that are at stake today. 

Federico Campagna Jamie Mackay
8 June 2015
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Still from Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ (1976)

Jamie Mackay: After five years of brutal austerity the Conservatives are back in power in Britain, this time with a majority government. What is last month’s UK election result symptomatic of?

Federico Campagna: The UK vote was quite surprising to me at first, at least from the approach of political rationality. You can ask yourself: what could the Tories have done to fuck people off more than they actually did? They took away everything they could, and not only the present: they remortgaged the future of a lot of people as well. Nonetheless, lots of those same people still voted for them. 

Personally, the only way in which I could understand this absurdity was through Pasolini’s idea of ‘anthropological mutation’. In the 1970s Pasolini started talking about a ‘mutation’ affecting the younger generations. He identified consumerism as the force behind it, but with hindsight we could better identify the mutagenic agent as contemporary Technic. This mutation meant, on the one hand, the liberation of youth from the bigotry of old social customs but, on the other hand, the annihilation of that profound and unconditional humanist culture that, through various adventures, had somehow managed to survive since antiquity.

According to Technic’s rationality, any 'thing' that exists – a rock, a plant, a person, an idea – is only valuable as a resource, as a means for the production of something else. Nothing retains any value, or indeed any reality, as a thing in itself. Everything constantly has to justify its own existence by proving its enthusiastic commitment to being turned into a tool: a cog (or terminal) in the global economy, or one of the myriad tiny flags composing the grand parade of social conformism. As is clear today, the first victims of this mutation have been the basic ‘joy of living’, together with the very idea of a human right to a ‘good life’. Immediately after that, empathy also capitulated. Nothing has value in itself, not even human life, not even our own happiness – so why bother fighting the deportation of our neighbour or our own exploitation? 

Of course, it would be impossible to sustain this nihilistic assault in its purest form. So the next, inevitable step has been the rush to erect all sorts of makeshift, yet impenetrable barricades. After all, if empathy is only a naive relic, and life and joy are mere resources, what stops my neighbour from killing me? Clearly, it can only be our shared identity. Our shared nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation and so on seem to have become the last guarantors of that truce to a ‘war of all against all’ of Hobbesian memory. This is why it has suddenly become so pathologically crucial to defend, to police and ultimately to take so very seriously all these cruel and absurd fictions. 

Pasolini was talking about the mutation of the twenty-somethings in the 1970s, that is, of today’s sixty-year olds. But since then the mutation has affected every new generation, to the point that today virtually all ages partake in it. This election was somehow symptomatic of this double movement of the mutation: both the annihilation of reality in itself, and the militarisation of identities. Or, to say with David Cameron: how we learned to stop worrying about the misery of our lives (and of that of our neighbour) and love our ‘British values’. 

JM: The anthropological mutation is visible across Europe, but Britain is going through its own idiosyncratic form of institutional and constitutional crisis. With a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU due in the next two years what kind of narrative is needed to challenge that offered by the nationalists?  

FC: We are living through a complete atrophy of the range of the possible. Even on the left the refrain is “we shouldn’t leave the EU because if we did we would lose x, y and z”. Which of course is true. Without the EU (and Scotland), forever-Tory England would lose most environmental regulations, workers rights, human rights and so on. But we have already lost another approach: that we shouldn’t leave the EU because the EU can be a first step towards other possibilities. 

It sounds like a small difference, between focusing on what you can lose and what you can gain, but it is actually quite an enormous shift. The generalised feeling today is that the ground is opening beneath our feet: one after the other, all things are swallowed by the void – welfare, public healthcare, human rights, etc – and all that we can do is to recite a litany of obituaries. Fear has entirely captured peoples’ minds, to the point that emancipatory struggles have turned into forms of reactionary resistance: we are rarely capable of looking at things from the perspective of what else could be possible through them.

Such a drive towards ‘the possible’ was at the heart, for example, of Giuseppe Mazzini’s radical Young Europe movement, and a nuanced understanding of the possibilities lying within a EU-like setup can also be found in an article written in 1918 by the young Gramsci. There, Gramsci predicted that Europe would be unified, first as a commercial union, and then, through the ‘subversive action’ of the revolutionaries, as a political union. 

I wonder how we can fail to see that the abolition of national borders – however limited within Fortress Europe – is already, in itself, an important step towards greater emancipatory gains. Europe has always been ‘one nation’ for the rich and the elites, who have always enjoyed freedom of movement within it. It is only the poor, the eternal cannon-fodder, who had to man the trenches along national borders. It is tragicomic to see how the destined sacrificial victims of nationalism, are exactly those who currently shout the loudest in groups like UKIP, FN, Lega Nord, etc. If the national borders are shut again, as will probably soon happen, those who will be sent back into the trenches might finally notice that goods, capital and CEOs are flowing freely above their heads.

JM: In the 1970s and 80s the project of Eurocommunism attempted to build a Europe around a very different set of principles than those articulated by neoliberalism. It was, perhaps, the most recent example of European, and global, internationalism. In large part the supporters of SYRIZA, Podemos, Die Linke and others calling for a new ‘new left’ have little to say about this history. How do you understand its legacy and how does it relate to efforts of these new parties?

FC: I think that we have to understand the project of Eurocommunism in context. It was a situation in which the Cold War was still ongoing, the USSR was on the verge of collapsing but nobody understood quite how quickly that was going to happen. So although the Eurocommunist experiment was delinked from the USSR and often in confrontation with it, they were paradoxically protected by its presence. And of course, it is no coincidence that as soon as the USSR dissolved, neoliberalism swept the whole continent. Yet, at a time when the world was divided between two main poles, Eurocommunism’s destiny was perhaps that of never succeeding. There was just no room for a third, fragmented pole, between two massive, monolithic ones. 

Today things have changed. The current situation is a lot more fluid and, perhaps paradoxically, a new form of peculiarly European ‘communism’ (which, of course, is not Eurocommunism) is more plausible than it was back then. Most importantly, there is a lot more need for it. At the time of Eurocommunism, history was basically frozen: the only things that could have happened were the Apocalypse or nothing. And so nothing happened. Today history is running fast, and it brings back memories of 1914, with a number of regional powers fighting each other, directly or indirectly, while toying with the possibility of mass-scale horrors that are all the more likely as they fall short of planetary annihilation. 

In all this, Europe is stuck in the tightening noose of multiple imperialisms competing with each other all around it, while also being subjected to the constant assault of global financial capital. Moving towards further political composition (a better word than ‘integration’) at least on a European level while also looking to include North Africa and the Middle East is imperative if we wish to retain even that basic level of freedom that is capable of enabling ‘the possible’. In this situation, the end of a project of creation of the United States of Europe – more than the end of the European Union as such – would also make it impossible for each individual European country to survive in any meaningful way. 

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Nuzhat al-musht?q fi'khtir?q al-?f?q (Tabula Rogeriana), by Muhammad al-Idrisi, circa 1154

JM:The idea of Europe you are talking about is seemingly far removed from that one hears from those working within and even against the strictures of the EU. To me this gulf between the current institutions and other possible philosophies of Europe is vital to emphasise, and particularly now. What are the dominant ideas of Europe today? And what alternatives do you consider particularly important?

FC: The most infamous, of course, is that of Financial Europe. This idea of Europe, I have to say, is not an idea of Europe. It has never been an idea of Europe. By definition, finance does not need to have a territorial, political union. On the contrary, it thrives on spaces of speculation (for example, currencies) that are produced by political divisions. Financial Europe is merely a disguise for global financial capital to present itself as ‘European’ – despite the obstacles posed by the Euro and the EU, unlike what many think. 

Then there is the idea of Christian Europe, which is also highly questionable. Clearly, Christianity has nothing to do with what is commonly called Europe today. Christianity is the product of a much-expanded version of Europe, stretching from the North Sea to Damascus, from Armenia to Algeria. Incidentally, that would be a version of Europe with a common religious identity, that is monotheism in all its three major declinations, as well as a common philosophy, platonism. But what people really mean, when they say ‘Christian Europe’, is in fact ‘rigidly identitarian Europe’, that is, ‘paranoid Europe’. The Christian label here is just as arbitrary as it would be the choice of founding Europe, say, around beer-brewing. 

Then there is the Europe of Technic, that which Oswald Spengler describes as the “Faustian civilisation”, projected towards infinity even at the cost of losing its own soul. Technic’s infinity is not only that of industrial production, of the scientific apparatus or of financial capital. It is also the explosion of the finite – things, life-forms, people – into a boundless nebula. Technic ‘liberates’ things from their finitude by separating them from their own singular forms: but of course, that which doesn’t have a form cannot have freedom, or be the subject of rights, or indeed be anything at all. This is the Europe that we know so well today, Faustian Europe as ‘the West’: that which cut down its last surviving forests, invented nerve agents and annihilated tens of millions of people in a handful of years.

As you say there are countless other ways of understanding Europe. But there is one that I dare to say I feel very close to. Going back to Spengler, he talks at length about the opposition between the Western-Faustian spirit, and the Apollonian spirit of Greek-Roman antiquity. Differently from the Faustian one, the Apollonian civilisation is centred around the idea of the limit, and of the living singularity as the measure of that limit. It is on this basis, says Spengler, that the Greeks built their philosophy, their mathematics, their art – and most importantly, their idea of happiness and of the ‘good life’. This is the idea that resurfaced in the Italian Renaissance, and then again in the ‘second humanism’ of Goethe and in the ‘third humanism’ of Werner Jaeger. It is on this basis, I believe, and not on the Faustian spirit, that we should imagine a radical, emancipatory project for Europe.

Of course, an Apollonian Europe could never be restricted to the hostile environment of the North of the continent. Apollonian Europe requires an expanded idea of Europe, coherently with its origin: a region of the world centred around the Mediterranean and stretching south to the Sahara and east towards the border with Afghanistan. It was this macro-region that historically produced and preserved over the centuries that humanist culture that has protected us so far from the Faustian horrors that live in the northern darkness of our culture. In a recent article, I proposed to reimagine Europe along these lines, as an expanded cultural area with two capitals: Athens and Alexandria of Egypt. These have been, since antiquity, the true capitals of a humanist Europe. 

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Statue of Apollo (5th century BC) found in the sea off Gaza in 2015

JM: There’s another idea of Europe which strikes me here, and that’s the version imagined by many of the migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Greece, Italy and Spain. Very often those arriving imagine a place effectively without borders, which guarantees certain safeties, a roof over one’s head, a dignified job, safety. It is a dream that I think scholars in the university, journalists, writers, should take seriously as a template for what we might want from a future Europe. It does, in many ways, seem to overlap with the Apollonian vision that interests you… 

FC: I completely agree. Right now, migrants are possibly the only force left to fight for a humanist Europe. I’ve always thought that migrants, both ‘internal’ and ‘external’, should reclaim the European project for themselves as its rightful heirs. Who else has such an unshakable notion, today, of the primacy of the living human singularity above all political conventions? A migrant’s conviction of deserving a happy and dignified life anywhere in the world – simply on the basis that they are people, regardless of their passport, income or employability – is incomparably more evolved and civilised than the feral mindset of the Oxbridge-educated upper classes and of their rabidly xenophobic foot-soldiers.

According to people like Theresa May, a migrant should be allowed to enter the UK regardless of their ‘qualifications’ only as long as s/he is fleeing from officially certified atrocities in the country of origin. As May recently remarked, the desire for a ‘better life’ does not constitute enough reason to ‘allow them in’ (or even to rescue them from a shipwreck). Essentially, this means that a person is entitled to exist just on the basis of their being a person, only as long as they are a certified victim. This sums up not only Tory policies, but the dark heart of the ‘mutation’: all that is left of the human is the suffering victim, nothing else. Either a Christ on the cross or a diligent servant of Technic: everybody else is a scrounger.

It was exactly after the mass martyrdom of two world conflicts and of the holocaust that the European process was set in motion. Not as a means to fatten the mythological ‘fat-cats in Brussels’, but as practical way to make sure that ideologies such as Theresa May’s would never again be able to produce their horrors. This is the spirit of Europe, or at least what is left of its Apollonian soul. This, I believe, is what is still worth fighting for – inside and beyond the EU. 

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