On the European identity and the nation-less democracy

Posted by Protesilaos Stavrou on 22/01/13
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Europa of the myth img
The mythical origins of Europe
Picture credit: Wikipedia

As I have already noted in several of my last articles, a sovereign two-tier state is emerging within the European Union; a state that will be relatively limited in scope, as it shall be confined, for the time being, to fiscal, monetary, financial, budgetary and economic policies. This state shall be none other than the Economic and Monetary Union (effectively the Euro area) elevated to the last level of political integration in its ascertion of sovereign authority, manifested in the federal right of intervention; a process that will require some time and will be completed over the medium term, but which has already been decisively set in motion (for a tangible example of such sovereignty see my analysis on the distinction between the banking union and the Single Supervisory Mechanism).

Concomitant with the rise of a state is the problématique of political legitimacy, of how the state relates to its subjects and how its operations and preponderance are accepted by them. No state can last without any kind of support. In fact, all states throughout time—tyrannical ones included—have been in need of a minimum of consent from their subjects, though not necessarily in the form of active support, but merely as passive resignation to some inevitable exogenous impulse.

Nationalism as the identification of the state with the people and the land

In ages past, the patina of authority to the rulers was provided by the clergy, in perhaps the oldest alliance of the state with the intellectuals: the symbiosis of state and organized religion (the Church). The ruling class was either considered to be appointed by (the) God(s), or they themselves were self-centered as gods or semi-gods, with the clergy’s eulogies facilitating such presumptions. Historical exceptions are those cases were people acted as autonomous, as having recognized, perhaps unconsciously, that human qua individual and collective is the sole institutor of all social life and, by that account, the community of individuals forming a polis would, by itself, determine what the law, the order, the terminus would be. The Athens of Pericles, the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, despite whatever flaws and limitations we contemporary people may identify in them, were among such autonomous societies, whose midpoint were the endogeneity and potential variability of the social imaginary.

In contradistinction to the autonomous polities, all other societies were characterized by heteronomy, by the alienation of the institutor—human—from the institutions, in the formalization and hypostatization of the latter as objective truths, as absolutes, as products of exterior forces bestowing upon society a given order, assumed of determining their conduct by virtue of some ‘natural’, ‘divine’, ‘historical’ or other greater magnitude that operated in the absence of human action and creation or in spite of such action and creation. The feudal status quo of the Middle Ages clearly conforms with this categorization.

With the rise of representative democracy an historical compromise between the forces of statism and populism (in the sense of ‘the people’) was achieved, in the formation of nation-states, viz. states that not only depended on a more or less popular support, but were above all identified with a given territory and people, not only in present time, but for eternity. Nationalism was the guiding social imaginary, the nation was the tutelary figure so to speak, or rather the intelligentsia’s narrative, in reconciling the doctrines of state sovereignty and conscience, as fleshed out in the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with the exuberant forces of democracy, socialism and federalism, all of which were found in opposition to the ancien régime of state rule and supremacy. The nationalist tenets can be discerned in four principal propositions:

  1. the nation is a timeless, natural ontology, anterior to individuals, with certain intrinsic features that determine its character or form,
  2. the people existing in present time, comprise only one dimension of the national whole, with the other two being the ancestors and the posterity,
  3. the state is the incarnation of the nation and by that account it shares insoluble ties with the people (the nation in present time),
  4. the nation-state-people has a natural habitat, which is rightfully its own and which is therefore the territory where the national will may be established.

The European political order of modernity, from the French Revolution thenceforth, was essentially predicated in variances of the above four, in the dissolution of empires or of fiefs-states and their consequent substitution with nation-states, whose squabbles were no longer to be perceived as antagonisms between the ruling elites and their mercenaries or serfs, as was the case in pre-nationalist times, but as conflicts between entire nations, in perceived primordial struggles and hatreds. The rise of total war, exemplified in the two World Wars can be attributed to this very shibboleth— the product of what may be called a ‘we-they’ syndrome.

With the end of WWII many understood the limitations of nationalism, as a compound of beliefs that could only bring fission and engender self-destructive competition between people. Those enlightened or audacious enough to sever all links with the nationalist tenets had recognized the original principles of democracy, socialism (in the sense of ‘for society’, not in the sense of sovietism/communism) and federalism, as antithetical to state rule and all its related facets, such as e.g. the identification of the state with the people. The European integration process, with all its undeniable flaws, was initiated in this spirit, to develop a federal and democratic polity that would differ fundamentally from the statist-nationalist paradigm of political organization; a polity that would not compartmentalize human beings along border lines, but which would overcome these rigidities in creating an effectively nation-less democracy; a polity of cosmopolites contrary to ethno-polites, if I may say so.

Do we need a ‘European’ people?

Ideas never die, they may be swept into the dustbin of history only to be dredged up again at a future date when conditions allow so, but they never disappear entirely from the world, as they represent certain deep-seated beliefs or perceptions of humans in relation to phenomena. Nationalism could be no exception. To avoid any misunderstandings, I may stress that by ‘nationalism’ I am not making use of a smear term to denigrate anyone, nor am I utilizing it in the sense of “far-right”, “extremist parties” etc. Nationalism is, in my understanding, a broader world-view underpinning many (most?) modern political ideologies, including a number of those that are or purport to be leftist (for instance, myself as a cosmopolite, I do not agree with such notions as ‘inter-nationalism’).

Against this backdrop of conflicting ideas being at the forefront of intellectual debates and of European integration reaching a point where key constitutional questions require satisfactory answers, it is pertinent to delve in the theme of a European identity, of a European populous. Do we ‘need’ a European people as an essential element or a prerequisite of European democracy? Or may we proceed to a new form of political organization, one that has yet to gain prominence in history?

Anyone following my rationale and the implicit ideas I am propounding has anticipated my suspicion of such notions as ‘European identity’, ‘European people’ etc. on the grounds that these are essentially couched in nationalistic terms. In particular, they rest upon the belief that a state has to be identified with a given people and hence ‘a people’ has to be created and be clearly delineated. The argument is plausible once the notion of ‘unity’ is brought into focus, however this account leaves much to be desired, for it interprets such unity only in its internal dimension, not its external one, as a sense of belongingness between individuals as against other individuals abroad.

The moment we recognize a need to develop a fixed identity of ourselves, a stereotype of us, we will have to do it, wittingly or not, in accordance with the nationalist method, by defining a territory that is ‘ours’ and a set of values that are ‘germane’ to ‘us’, of which we are the best and perhaps sole representatives in contrast to what ‘others’ have as inherent to them.

In my humble opinion, this position of what I call European meta-nationalism, is specious even though it is driven by sincere and, in many ways, progressive sentiments and ideas. For while it introduces a reformative element, it remains trapped in an antinomy, in the web of assumptions and prejudices of older doctrines of statism and of political organization. Ultimately this will bring about an era of gigantism, of ‘big nations’ competing on the global setting with one another, in the recrudescence of the mercantilist order, via currency wars, trade restrictions and other devices of ‘we-they’ classifications.

What I consider as optimal, in juxtaposition to the European meta-nationalist line of thought, is a federal, decentralized and bottom-up political order in Europe that will recognize and respect two fundamental principles:

  1. cosmopolitanism: all humans, regardless of origin, no matter whether they were born or grew up in Europe or any other part of the world, can participate and contribute to a European democracy, by virtue of them being human, nothing more, nothing less; because as Socrates rightly claimedvirtue can be taught, meaning that ‘our’ values are not ours in the possessive sense of the term and hence everyone has something to learn and to teach,
  2. individuality: a system that will respect the individual person, as a free being and as a contributor to political organization, eventually bringing forth systems of democratic decision-making that are deliberative and participatory.

On the one hand cosmopolitanism places a check on segregative tendencies, while on the other individuality objects the figment of state being equivalent to society, therefore demanding a genuinely decentralized and inclusive political system and a distribution of power that preempts and prevents the control of human by human.

Concluding remarks

It would be preposterous to claim that my view is anyhow superior to anyone else’s or that this article exhausts the topic I elaborated upon. What has been forwarded here is but the prolegomena to an understanding of the world, to my understanding at least, along subjectivist and libertarian federalist lines.

The themes of sovereignty, democracy, authority, identity, European integration and all that is directly or indirectly related to them, can definitely be interpreted from a variety of angles, where perhaps an eclectic approach may be the conduit to knowledge, or to the discovery of the Aristotelean golden mean, in proceeding towards our future.

Since I wrote this article, I may also direct the reader to the blog posts of fellow bloggers Horatiu Ferchiu and Euronomist who have also recently written on the theme of a European people. What I have postulated herein is not in response to them or anyone else in particular, but is, I believe, part of the broader debate; a debate which will hopefully broaden and deepen.

Whatever the case, anyone willing to concatenate the series of events that have been taking place over the last years, will realize that we live defining moments in the history of European integration and, therefore, what we do or abstain from doing now, will have an impact, cardinal or ancillary, on the decisions and realities that are to follow. For democracy to be brought into being, if we really are democratically-minded people after all, action is necessary and so are vigilance and alertness to the workings of power. Some might, on these grounds object to ‘armchair theories’ such as the above, arguing that theorizing is not practical and cannot yield any substantial results nor bring forth the reformulation of the broader social imaginary that is the narrative of the age in the polity. In my humble opinion this accusation is erroneous as it neglects the fact that the mother of all action is thinking, writing and deliberating.

One must first know what to look for, before venturing to seize it. Do we know what Europe we want?

NOTE: A lengthy and constructive discussion on this article has already taken place. Feel welcome to contribute to the comment section on the following link: On the European identity and the nation-less democracy | Protesilaos Stavrou.

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