A heart for Europe

Author: Dick Pels*

Combating Violence and Fear

If there is any such thing as European civilization, how can we define it, become more proud of it and defend it more convincingly in the current multiple crisis? It is plain for all to see that the European project is now sailing in bad weather, being threatened both by outside forces and from within. Hence perhaps we should ask in a more desperate tone: what is left of European civilization, and how can we salvage what is left?Let me begin with a sobering quip which is attributed to Gandhi, who was asked what he thought about Western civilization: ‘I think it would be a good idea’. European civilization, likewise, may still be in large part wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it would not be unrealistic to define it as the never-ending quest for a more gentle, more relaxed, more trustful, less dangerous society. Put in simple terms: it is the dream of a society in which people are no longer afraid of each other, of their institutions or of themselves. Civilization implies that violence, cruelty, harassment and humiliation are as much as possible banned from society. It demands that the power of the strong cedes before the right of the weak, and that fear gives way to trust. In this respect, Europe still represents the most momentous civilizational ideal of our time.

In the above broad formulation, it can also be viewed as a deepening and generalization of the original mission of ‘never again war’ (which may justifiably be called Europe’s ‘primal scream’). Nowadays this sentiment is often dismissed as a nostalgic admonition which is hardly relevant for younger generations that foster different hopes and concerns (such as getting a sustainable job). But after seven relatively quiet decades, large-scale violence and even the threat of hot war have unexpectedly returned to Europe: in eastern Ukraine, as a result of the Syrian war, in the shape of IS-inspired and rightwing terrorism, in the form of attacks against (and by) migrants and as a rising death toll in the Mediterranean. This intensification of violence also includes the stepping up of verbal violence, the rise of authoritarianism and the normalization of political lying and ‘post-truth’ cyberwarfare.

But if the old aspiration of ‘never again war’ can be broadened, turned positive and ‘futurized’, beyond the eradication of direct physical violence among nation-states, it may also include the gradual diminution of institutional, moral and mental cruelty within them. In this way, a direct continuity is established between the ideals of the European founding fathers and current visions of Europe as a zone of physical and social security in which citizens feel at home and have equal access to the means of living a good life. This vision still presents an immense task within Europe itself, where physical, economic, political and cultural violence are still rampant, not to mention the sexual violence which is perpetrated against women, children and gays, the ‘entertainment violence’ which is committed by soccer hooligans, and the symbolic violence which is indulged in by those who identify the freedom of speech with the freedom (or even the duty) to insult others.

Brexit and Trump: Regress of Civilization?

On this definition, are we currently experiencing a backslide, a regressive movement in civilization? As the Belgian political philosopher Philippe van Parijs suggests, Brexit essentially means that the UK is opting out from a major process of civilization, which he defines as ‘the progress from violence to negotiation and from negotiation to deliberation as a way of settling conflicts of interest between human beings and the communities they form’. As a consequence, the scope of the ‘We Europeans’ among whom deliberation takes place will shrink. Van Parijs warns that there will be ‘far more need for bargaining and far less room for arguing, and the EU will need to defend itself against free riding and social dumping by a potential pirate state off its coast’ (Social Europe 16.9.16).

On the other side of the Atlantic we may witness a similar, even more serious regress. The USA is no longer ‘the shining city upon the hill’: the natural lead nation which self-evidently attracts admiration, imitation and romanticization around the world. ‘The American dream is dead’, as Donald Trump himself said when announcing his presidential candidacy. The German weekly Die Zeit already voiced deep concerns over this: can a country which is moved by fears and which is losing its self-control still lay claim to a leading role in the world (3.11.16)? The USA may already be described as less civilized than many (western) European nations in terms of its killing gun culture, police violence and penchant for militarism, nationalism, racism and male chauvinism. To this Trump is now adding his own dose of shameless bullying, lack of self-control, sexism, racism and flirtation with violence. In his view, the world is not a conference table but as (at best) a marketplace which you leave either as a winner or a loser; where you need to bluff, intimidate, threaten and mislead rather than talk and negotiate (in the style adopted by Putin, Erdoğan and Xi). Whoever wins, is right; hence truth is determined by power. The idea of civilization, on the other hand, requires respect for truth, facts and independent investigation (as upheld by Dutch PM Mark Rutte in the face of the Russian disinformation campaign with regard to the missile attack on flight MH17).

Two Types of Democracy

Hence we find ourselves in a veritable civilizational clash: a great Kulturkampf in which Europe appears increasingly caught in a squeeze between authoritarian and populist movements and regimes. Russia, Turkey and IS threaten it on its eastern and southern borders, while Brexit and the Trump presidency are opening a rift between the Wild West and the Civilized West. In this squeeze, it is more urgent than ever to defend the idea of European civilization, not least because the clash and the challenge is also a ‘domestic’ one which divides the European nations amongst themselves as well as internally (see Hungary under Orbán, Poland under the PiS government, recent elections and referenda in the Netherlands, Austria and Italy as well as coming ones in the Netherlands, France and Germany). In order to demarcate the identity of Europe, we therefore had better accentuate such cultural differences rather than declare the shared values of ‘Western’ civilization, for example by celebrating ‘feminine’ Europe against ‘male chauvinist’ America, Russia or Turkey. It is not surprising that German chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman who stubbornly embraces a style of rationality, moderation and discipline, has emerged as a natural antipode, first to Vladimir Putin during the Ukraine crisis, then to Victor Orbán during the refugee crisis, and more recently also to alpha male supreme Donald Trump.

Put in slightly different but equally general terms, this civilizational clash ranges two types of democracy against one another: liberal-representative vs. illiberal, authoritarian or populist democracy. This type of conflict is comparatively new and different from the political clashes of the 1930s, since it does not so much oppose democracy to anti-democracy (fascism), but is rather conducted between two types of democracy which are equally legitimate in historical (though not in moral) terms. Otherwise put: a great fight is being waged between, on the one hand, a liberal-pluralist form of democracy, which includes institutional checks and balances, accommodates cultural differences, is protective of minority rights and embraces cosmopolitan values as well as attitudes of moderation, compromise and self-criticism; and on the other hand, a plebiscitary or populist type which tends to interpret democracy literally (as popular sovereigny or direct rule of the people) and which supports antipluralism, nationalism and the absolutism of ‘the people are always right’ (which should in fact be read in reverse: whoever is right is called ‘people’ and whoever is wrong is called ‘elite’). Let us recall that both the UK and the USA feature majoritarian political systems where the winner takes all – a feature which is also legitimated by the neoliberal capitalist ideology which has grown firmer roots in these nations than anywhere else.

If the contemporary political arena can be delineated in these terms, it is clear that the social-democratic green left (indeed a broad church) can only rise to the challenge by reviving this ideal of civilization, by retrieving its cultural and political identity in these terms and, in doing so, recovering its democratic pride and courage. It is also clear that we cannot limit ourselves to the fight against neoliberal powers and ideologies (a fight which remains essential, particularly where these are channeled through EU policies) but that we also need to develop a cultural agenda and a politics of identity of our own. ‘Returning to the class struggle’ by reducing inequalities, redistributing material resources and restoring opportunities to rise in the world, though crucially important, is not enough. We also need a convincing alternative story about who we are and who we want to be, as members of our individual nations and as European citizens. This ‘progressive patriotism’, which applies both to our nations and to Europe, necessarily entails demarcating ourselves from what we are not and do not wish to become: the Other, the adversary, the enemy. Who these enemies are, is increasingly becoming clear to us.

*Dick Pels is a sociologist and political writer. His most recent book A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism is available as a free download from www.dickpels.nl This talk was prepared for the Citizens’ University of Diem25 in The Hague on 8 December 2016.