The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

The European Experiment

Zygmunt Bauman

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

J. M. Coetzee, one of the greatest living philosophers among the writers of novels, and one of the most accomplished living novelists among philosophers, notes in his Diary of a Bad Year (2008) that “the question of why life must be likened to a race, or of why the national economies must race against one another rather than going for a comradely jog together, for the sake of their health, is not raised.” He adds, “But surely God did not make the market—God or the Spirit of History. And if we human beings made it, can we not unmake it and remake it in a kindlier form? Why does the world have to be a kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial amphitheatre rather than, say, a busily cooperative beehive or anthill?”

Coetzee’s question needs to be borne in mind whenever we try to comprehend the present predicament of the European Union: whenever we try to find out how come we find ourselves in it and what exits, if any, are not yet locked forever. Present-day necessities are but layered and petrified leftovers of yesterday’s choices—to much the same extent that present-day choices beget the self-evident “facts of the matter” in the emergent realities of tomorrow.

The political institutions of contemporary Europe are palimpsests with many layers. When covered with new brushwork, older layers are not dissolved, let alone effaced; the old can still be gleaned under the veneer of the new. Like all histories, the history and prehistory of the European Union are ones in which continuities and discontinuities intertwine. Decisive ruptures with the past and genuinely new starts are hard to find. The outcome is more suggestive of a riotous, anarchic daub than a thoughtful composition—and most certainly not a composition with a predesigned and predetermined logic of its own. It looks like a doomed attempt to conjure up harmony from incoherence and concord out of incompatibility, useless or even downright treacherous if deployed as a road map for effective action.

The Westphalian Formula

The modern chapter of Europe’s attempts at unity—or, short of unity, peaceful coexistence—comes long after the apogee of the most successful and durable instance of such a feat: the Holy Roman Empire. It comes, more proximately, after the famous effort to arrive at a formula for coexistence as the last vestiges of that empire were being destroyed on the religious battlefields of post-Reformation Europe. That attempt was inaugurated in 1555 in the German town of Augsburg, to which the ruling dynasties of the parts of Europe most devastated by warring religious factions sent their plenipotentiaries. The hoped-for goal was a formula for armistice that would end the first (though, as it would transpire, not the last) all-out fratricidal war of the Europeans. The formula—cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”)—was coined and agreed upon, but it took almost a century more of killings, burnings, and other destruction for the armistice to be accepted and put into practice in what came to be known as the “Westphalian settlement.”

What that formula was intended to establish was the right of the ruler to decide which of the competing religions his or her subjects would be obliged to embrace. The formula effectively enthroned the idea of territorial sovereignty, establishing the rights of the ruler as binding and uncontested within the boundaries of his or her domain. Indeed, the sovereignty this formula suggested, as elaborated by Machiavelli, Luther, Jean Bodin (in his exceptionally influential De la République, published in 1576, twenty-one years after the Treaty of Augsburg), or Hobbes, meant a full, unconstrained right of kings or princes to proclaim and execute the laws binding whoever happened to inhabit the territory under their rule (variously described as ascendancy, supremacy, or dominance). Sovereignty meant supreme authority—unconstrained by external interference and indivisible—within a territory. As Machiavelli argued, and all politicians worthy of that name have reiterated since, the sole obligation of princes was to la raison d’état—“l’état” referring invariably to the territorial entities circumscribed by the borders of their realm. As it is put in the entry on sovereignty in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Sovereign authority is exercised within borders, but also, by definition, with respect to outsiders, who may not interfere with the sovereign’s governance”—those “outsiders” being, obviously, authorities also territorially fixed, though located on the other side of the borders. Any attempt to meddle with the order of things established by sovereigns on the territory of their rule was thereby proclaimed illegal, condemnable, a casus belli; the Augsburg formula may be read as the founding act of the modern phenomenon of state sovereignty—as well as, to the extent that it is read correctly, the textual source of the modern concept of state borders.

And so there was, as well, a collateral attached to the Westphalian settlement, self-evident even if not spelled out in so many words: instead of being locked in an interminable war of (mutual) exhaustion, sovereigns should henceforth be united in a solidary defense of the unquestionable and inviolable principle of each one’s unconditional authority—indivisible and uncontested in its territorial circumscription.

Once incorporated into the practice of governance, the formula of the Westphalian settlement proved uniquely suitable to preparing the stage for the nation-building chapter in European history. It took but a substitution of natio for religio (as a matter of fact, a purely terminological change, not a substantive operation) to deploy it as the universal ordering principle in the lengthy and thorny process of the Europe-inspired and Europe-driven transformation of a world divided among scions of divinely anointed dynasties into a world sliced into states resting their legitimacy and their claim to the obedience of their subjects on the “national interest.”

The idea of territorial boundaries of sovereignty presumed by the Westphalian formula, together with the later-added codicil of the natural or divinely blessed union of nation and state, was subsequently exported by European conquistadors to the rest of the world, having been deployed in the episode of European colonialism and applied in the overseas outposts of the emerging and burgeoning Europe-centered empires as much as it had been originally to their European metropoles. As a lasting trace of European colonialist adventure, the Westphalian formula remains in theory, if not always in practice, an inviolable and seldom explicitly contested organizational principle of human cohabitation on earth.

The snag is that the Westphalian formula decreasingly reflects the reality of a changed, or at least swiftly changing, world. In the course of the last half century, the processes of deregulation promoted and supervised by state governments joining the so-called neoliberal revolution have resulted in the growing separation of power (the capacity to get things done) and politics (the process of deciding which things need and ought to be done). For all practical intents and purposes, much of the power previously contained within the borders of the nation-state has relocated to the no man’s land of the “space of flows” (as Manuel Castells has dubbed the politics-free expanses), while politics has remained territorially fixed and constrained.

A Crisis of Territorial Sovereignty

The compact of power and politics, the sine qua non of effective action and purposeful change, has been, in effect, split into power freed from all but rudimentary political control and politics suffering a permanent and growing deficit of power. Seriously drained of power and continuing to weaken, state governments are compelled to cede one by one the functions once considered a natural and inalienable monopoly of the political organs of the state to the control of already-deregulated market forces, exempting them thereby from the realm of political accountability and supervision. As for the task of tackling the adverse and potentially socially destructive effects of the market’s tendency to an unbridled pursuit of profit at the expense of all other values, that has been “subsidiarized” in what Anthony Giddens has called the “realm of life politics”—a realm left to the initiative, ingenuity, stamina, and chronically inadequate resources of the individual.

The parallel processes of “contracting out” some state functions to market forces while “subsidiarizing” quite a few others to “life politics” result in declining popular trust in governments’ ability to deal effectively with the multiple threats to the existential condition of their citizens. It is not that one or another political party is seen as having failed the test; the evidence accumulates that a changing of the guard prompts only minimal changes in government policies. It succeeds even less in reducing the hardships associated with the struggle for survival under conditions of acute uncertainty. It is the system of representative democracy, designed, elaborated, and put in place by the builders of the modern nation-state, whose popular credentials are crumbling. Citizens believe less and less that governments are capable of delivering on their promises.

They are not wrong. One of the tacit yet crucial assumptions underlying trust in parliamentary democracy is that what the citizens decide in elections is who will rule the country for the next few years and whose policies the elected government will attempt to implement. The recent collapse of the credit-grounded economy cast that assumption in spectacular relief. In the preface to the 2009 edition of his False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, John Gray, one of the more astute analysts of the roots of the present-day worldwide instability, asks why the recent economic collapse failed to increase international cooperation and instead released centrifugal pressures. His answer is that “governments are among the casualties of the crisis, and the logic of each of them acting to protect its citizens is greater insecurity of all.” This is so, Gray explains, because “the worst threats to humankind are global in nature,” while “there is no prospect of any effective global governance to deal with them.”

Indeed, while many of our largest problems are globally produced, the instruments of political action bequeathed by the builders of nation-states were cut to the measure of services that territorial nation-states required; these instruments prove singularly unfit when it comes to handling global challenges. Yet for us, continuing to live in the shadow of the Westphalian settlement, they are still the only means we can think of and turn to in moments of crisis. And we do so despite their insufficiency to secure territorial sovereignty, the sine qua non of that settlement’s practical viability.

To put it in the nutshell: our present crisis is first and foremost a crisis of agency— though in the last account it is a crisis of territorial sovereignty. Each formally sovereign territorial unit might serve nowadays as a dumping ground for problems originating far beyond the reach of its instruments of political control, and there is little it can do to address or mitigate the effects of those problems with the power left at its disposal. Some formally sovereign units are demoted in practice to the rank of local police precincts struggling to secure a modicum of law and order necessary for the traffic whose comings and goings they neither intend nor are able to control. However great the distance between their sovereignty de jure and their sovereignty de facto, all modern states are forced to seek local solutions to globally generated problems—a task far transcending the capacity of all except a handful of the richest and most resourceful among them.

Let me repeat: we still live in the post-Westphalian era, licking the as yet unhealed wounds the cuius regio, eius natio rule has delivered and continues to deliver to social bodies seeking to protect and retain their integrity. The process of emancipation from the shadows cast by Westphalian sovereignty is protracted and varied. While many powers (already globalized, free-floating powers, such as those over finance, commercial interests, information, the drug and weapons trades, criminality, or terrorism, all of which, despite their differences, are similar in their disregard for local laws, values, and preferences) have already effectively escaped national political control, national politics is still smarting at its increasing loss of agency. And the conspicuous absence of global political agencies capable of catching up with this transfer of real power away from nations is arguably the main obstacle on the road toward a “cosmopolitan consciousness” that can match the existing global interdependence of humanity.

Democracies in a Double Bind

Of the more than 200 members of the United Nations recognized as territorially sovereign units, those that are democracies face a particularly hard challenge—indeed, a kind of double bind. A defining feature of democracy is, of course, the periodic holding of elections to determine who the people at the helm will be. If the results of the elections are not forged or obtained through coercion, they are believed to represent the citizens’ interests, at least as expressed at the time of polling. All politicians who stand for election must listen attentively to people’s voices in order to check their and their party’s platform against the electors’ willingness to support it. And if elected, politicians must try to deliver on what they promised. But from their first day in office, the victors will be exposed to another, more overwhelming pressure consisting of the sum of those forces (or at least many of them) that now elude national political control and yet deeply influence, for good or ill, the well-being of a nation’s people. Until the start of the next electoral campaign, those forces are likely to be the chief ones a politician will have to reckon with, however great his or her risk of being voted out of office for ignoring or at least scanting the will of the electors.

Once caught in a double bind, governments are left with little choice but to pray that before the next election their service to the “second-bond forces” (stock exchanges, itinerant capital, venture bankers, and the like) will be repaid with a rising heap of investment and trade contracts—and, most consequentially, with the “feel-good factor” that so heavily influences people’s calculations in the polling booth. There is evidence, however, that such calculations no longer work as expected. It is not just that the elected politicians fail to deliver on their promises; the “second-bond forces” also fail to deliver according to the politicians’ expectations. There is nothing, therefore, not even a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, with which to assuage the frustration and anger of the electorate. Citizens’ mistrust and resentment extend to the whole of the political spectrum, except perhaps its marginal, often ultranationalist segments. Choices made in the polling booth are now seldom guided by trust in an alternative; increasingly, they result from frustration with the botched job done by the incumbents. Parties able to boast of holding office for more than one term become ever rarer.

“The Specter of Indignation”

With the nation-state institutions no longer competent players, what force can possibly fill their role? This is an increasingly contentious question, with no shortage of tentative answers. Plenty of attempts are made to find new instruments of collective action better suited to the increasingly globalized setting than the political tools put in place in the post-Westphalian era of nation-building. Such efforts come from many quarters of society, particularly from the “precariat,” a rapidly growing stratum that is absorbing whatever remains of the former industrial proletariat, along with ever-growing tranches of the falling middle classes. That stratum is so far “united” solely by the sense of living on quicksand or at the foot of a volcano. What makes it unlikely that the precariat will consolidate into a serious and durable political force is that there is too little holding its constituents together. One such instance, which has figured prominently in the media, has been named the “movement of the indignant,” in an effort to characterize the mushrooming yet variegated experiences of protest in locations ranging from Tahrir Square to Tamsin Square to Zuccotti Park. Sociologist Harald Welzer may be on the right track in seeking the deep causes of that phenomenon in a growing public realization that, as he writes in Climate Wars (2012), “individualist strategies have a mainly sedative function. The level of international politics offers the prospect of change only in a distant future, and so cultural action is left with the middle level, the level of one’s own society, and the democratic issue of how people want to live in the future”—even if in many, perhaps most, cases, that preference is subliminal or poorly articulated.

Were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, those two hotheaded youngsters from the Rhineland, setting out to pen their Manifesto today, they might well start with the slightly altered observation that “a specter hovers over the planet, the specter of indignation.” Reasons to be indignant are many. One can, however, surmise that a common denominator of otherwise varied causes is the humiliating, self-esteem-and-dignity-defying awareness of our own ignorance and impotence. The old ways of tackling life challenges don’t work anymore, while new and effective ones are nowhere in sight.

For whatever reasons, indignation grows, and at least the provisional way of venting it is by going to the streets and squares and occupying them. The recruiting pool for potential occupiers is enormous and growing day by day. Having lost faith in salvation from “on high” (that is, from parliaments and government offices) and looking for alternative ways of having the right things done, people are taking to the streets to experiment and find new answers to problems. They transform city squares into open-air laboratories in which tools of political action that they hope will match the enormity of the challenge are designed or come upon by chance, put to the test, and perhaps even pass a baptism by fire.

And those problems are in many cases the very ones many people have come to expect the European Union to address and, eventually, solve. They are difficulties that tend to elicit common concerns: about a crisis of agency, about trust in the existing agencies, and about popular trust in democracy. The European Union is at present one of the most advanced political experiments devoted to finding a local solution to globally produced problems. It puts to the test a possible answer to Coetzee’s question “of why life must be likened to a race, or of why the national economies must race against one another rather than going for a comradely jog together.” The founders of today’s politically integrated Europe, simultaneously visionaries and clearheaded realists, men like Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Paul-Henri Spaak, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gasperi, undertook a formidable task—building a pan-European, transnational solidarity, which would deliberately and purposefully unify spontaneously emerged local solidarities that for hundreds of years had reasserted their identities by stirring up conflicts of interests and stoking the fires of discord with neighbors.

State of Interregnum

There are those who doubt the possibility of transnational solidarity, known sometimes as “a sense of European identity.” Nation and state, they say, are conjoined once and for all in the eyes of God and history, and only within this framework can human solidarity be a natural attribute of human coexistence. Without a historically formed national destiny, they insist, only fragile, unstable, and inherently temporary alliances are possible. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has provided what is so far the strongest argument against this opinion, pointing out that democratic order need not be supported by an ingrained idea of the “nation” as a prepolitical community of fate and destiny. He argues that the might of a democratic constitutional state is based precisely on its potential to create and recreate social integration through the political engagement of its citizens. National community does not precede political community but is its ongoing and perpetually reproduced product. The claim that a stable and self-perpetuating political system cannot exist without a consolidated ethnocultural entity is neither more nor less convincing than the claim that no ethnocultural entity is capable of consolidating and acquiring the strength to self-perpetuate without the help of an efficient political mechanism.

Speculating about the relative values of these opposing views will yield little, finally, because the debate can be settled authoritatively and effectively only by political will and the institutional achievements of the Europeans (both so far making their importance felt mainly by their ineffectuality, irresoluteness, and near invisibility), not by philosophical deliberations, however subtle or logically impeccable.

Europeans, like most other inhabitants of the planet, are currently facing the crisis of “politics as we know it” while being moved to find or invent local solutions to global challenges. Europeans, like most other inhabitants of the planet, find that the current ways of doing things don’t work, while effective alternatives are as yet nowhere in sight. It is a state of things described by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci as an “interregnum”—a time when the old is already dead or dying but the new has not yet been born. But unlike most other inhabitants of the planet, Europeans inhabit not a two- but a three-story edifice. Between the global powers and the national politics there is the European Union—a peculiar blend of the “policy without politics” of Brussels bureaucrats and the “politics without policy” of national presidents and prime ministers meeting periodically in Council of Europe sessions.

The presence of a middle link in the chain of dependency muddies the otherwise clear “us” and “them” division. Which side is the European Union on? Is it a part of “our” (autonomous) politics, or of “their” (heteronymous) power? Viewed from one side, that Union is a shield protecting the aggregate of individual states, many of them too small or weak to defend themselves, against the worst excesses of unbridled and unscrupulous global powers. Viewed from the other side, that Union is a kind of fifth column of the same global powers, a vanguard of forces conspiring to erode and ultimately to render null and void both the nation’s and the state’s chances of sovereignty.

The confounding reality is that both views are true. Given the present planetary condition, performing the first role is hardly possible without at least occasionally playing the second. Serving, then, as a laboratory in which ways to confront globally generated problems and challenges are daily designed, debated, and tested in practice: this is what makes Europe uniquely significant for the future of a planet faced with the second seminal transformation in its modern history of human cohabitation. This transformation will be another crushingly toilsome leap, this time from the “imagined totalities” of nations-states to the “imagined totality” of humankind. In that process, the European Union stands a chance of performing the combined tasks of a reconnaissance sally, a midway station, and an advance outpost. Not easy tasks, and hardly guaranteed to be completed successfully. But as French president François Hollande put it in his 2013 Bastille Day speech, “Politics is not magic, not a bag of tricks, but a matter of will, strategy, and coherence.” So it is. And so is the future of European unification, and through it, the future of Immanuel Kant’s two-century-old dream of the allgemeine Vereinigung der Menschheit—a general association of humankind.

Zygmunt Bauman, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Leeds, is the author of some 57 books, including Globalization: The Human Consequences (1998), Liquid Modernity (2000), and Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (2004).

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