Postmodern Conservative

Two French ‘Pomocons’ on EU Debility

As far as I understand it, little about the Euro-crisis has fundamentally changed since it began five years ago. So I suppose that, as not a few economists affirm, we should still say that the Eurozone EU is “in crisis,” however much that seems to have become the new normal. However we should speak of that, there is a real EU crisis. It is related to the diminishing confidence in the workability of the EMU (Economic Monetary Union), but it is not solely about it. Considered more broadly, it consists of a slow but inexorable rot of once-vibrant societies into a “post-political Europe.” Aspects of this growing debility are occasionally revealed by headline-making events. 

Two such events happened recently. First, Euro-sceptic parties recently triumphed in certain EU and national elections, as George Will briefly discussed. Second, the EU response to Putin’s actions in the Ukraine has been uniquely pathetic. Sure, European leaders made the now-standard announcement that those actions are “unacceptable,” but who bothers to even mentally register such statements anymore? This effectual non-response is discussed in an important new (subscriber only) essay by Jeremy Rabkin in The Claremont Review of Books, titled “The Crimean Job.” If events now seem to be pushing the EU a bit further, the resultant headlines, such as “EU Leaders May Consider Further Russian Sanctions,” are hardly confidence-inspiring. And this is to say nothing of the larger EU policy drift regarding its undefined Eastern borderlands that in fact contributed to Ukraine’s internal divisions and Russia’s aggressiveness. 

These reminders of the EU’s ineffectiveness and growing unpopularity provide an occasion to briefly introduce the relevant thinking of two French political theorists that American conservatives should definitely be more familiar with: Pierre Manent and Philippe Bénéton. Another post, continuing where I left off on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” will also bring Chantal Delsol’s work into the discussion, to address the more general question of whether mankind can move beyond having nations. 

Pierre Manent is the most powerful critic of the EU.  here was a period when he argued that the EU could be a good choice for Europeans, if they chose to really make it a union. The danger was Europe’s dithering between being a common market and an actual United States of Europe. It had to choose, lest the confusion passed actual governance over to bureaucrats. By the mid-aughts, however, Manent seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that it was impossible for contemporary Europeans to bring themselves to choose a real union. While he did not present himself as an opponent to further French integration into the EU, his thought increasingly pointed in that direction, and in any case involved a full-scale rehabilitation of the idea of the nation for democracy and political life generally. In Europe, that idea was greatly discredited by the two world wars. For Manent, the nation is one of three basic political forms available to humanity, the other two being the city-state and the empire. 

In 1996, in the early days of the EU when Manent was still somewhat open to its union-building prospects, he penned his unforgettable essay “Democracy without Nations?” now available in an expanded book of the same title. In it he said the following:

Modern democracy, which is founded on the will, wants to be self-sufficient, but it cannot do without a body. Yet how can it give itself a new body, a body that would not be the . . . arbitrary legacy of the predemocratic age, a body of which democracy would be the sole author? Therefore, democracy has put on this abstract body called “Europe.”  But in order for this body to become real, and to be able to produce and circumscribe an awareness of itself, it must have height, length, depth, and dimensions — that is, limits. But since every limit would be arbitrary from the point of view of the democratic principle, democracy gives itself a body without limits, a Europe of indefinite extension. . . . How many nations, in fact, belong to it? Twelve? Twenty? Thirty? Does Turkey, for example, belong? Why not?  Or why?  The European political class has not even seriously begun to ask these questions, let alone answer them. 

It certainly did not seriously ask these questions with respect to the Ukraine and Russia, leaving EU membership at least a possibility for both, and very much a live option for the former. While it has not been much discussed, this is part of the reason for the current Ukraine conflict.

Such questions lead not simply to the practical need EU domestic and foreign policy has for stability and self-limitation, but to a consideration of Europe’s formation by Christianity, to the fact that some political body, i.e., political form, is always necessary, and to the question of whether the EU’s emerging form is more like an empire or more like a confederation of nations.

Manent’s thought always takes you to the root. And virtually every deep insight of his takes you into others. Paradoxes abound, and the intellectual riches can begin to overwhelm and daze. To grasp the contested relation between nation and democracy in contemporary Europe, for example, it turns out one must understand Aristotle, the death penalty, the Church, The Intellectual History of Liberalism, Tocqueville, Israel, and much else. I nonetheless heartily recommend Democracy without Nations? as an accessible entryway into the thought of one of the greatest living political philosophers.

A more deliberately limited thinker, and one whom I know American conservatives would greatly benefit from, is Philippe Bénéton. His 2004 book Equality by Default, translated by our Ralph Hancock, gives you a very orderly, and yet appropriately artful, presentation of how modernity looks from a perspective informed by Catholic, Tocquevillian, and Strauss-influenced political philosophy. A better philosophical handbook to understanding what is wrong with our contemporary societies cannot be imagined. Procedural and instrumental rationality have come to rule everything for us — i.e., it’s “Rawls” on one hand, and the unbounded market on the other — at the expense of everything we really cherish, the things only apprehended by what Bénéton calls substantive reason. 

The primary example of what substantive reason must be used to capture is human nature itself. If one does not permit oneself to discern the essential human nature we all share, misled by the “scientistic” rejection of all non-quantitative and mathematical-like modes of reasoning, and by the usual interpretations of Darwin and Rousseau, one will not really be able to affirm the proposition of equality that liberal democracy rests upon.  (Unless, of course, one accepts it on Biblical authority alone.) If one still affirms equality, then, it will be due to seeing the human as “pure indeterminacy” only characterized by the exercise arbitrary will.  In this rejection of substantive equality, we will not be seen as equal due to what we are, but rather as due to an absence of essential being. We will be equal, but only by default, and by assertion/construction.

Bénéton recently wrote a fine essay on the EU’s larger crisis, “Europe and the New Democracy,” for The Hedgehog Review, and you should go read the whole thing right now. Here are a couple of key passages, in which you can see how he applies his main insights to the EU:

In some ways, the new Europe neutralizes politics and reduces society to a conglomerate of individuals who agree only on respecting the rules. Europe “depoliticizes” the common life. It reduces the sphere of politics to make greater room for the imperatives of human rights and a market economy. It exempts from political debate all rules deriving from individual rights and free market competition. It creates a supranational and suprapolitical law. Consequently, more and more issues have been removed from genuine democratic discussion. The democracy “Eurocrats” speak of in Brussels is not the democracy of citizens; it is the democracy of rights holders and consumers. The new Europe is working to build a society of individuals. 

That’s part of what he means by calling this a “postpolitical Europe.” But he also ties this to the “procedural democracy” idea he has formulated more clearly than anyone else:

The regime in place in Europe is a procedural democracy. It is defined exclusively by formal rules: human rights, a free market, majority rule in the political arena. Liberal democracy is a machine in working order as long as everyone respects the rules of the game. The qualities of the participants matter little. 

One can see how that applies not simply to France and Europe, but to the way many lawyer-loving liberals and libertarians think American democracy ought to function, and to the way they typically overinterpret The Federalist Papers’ various statements that good government cannot solely rely upon citizen virtue and enlightened statesmanship.

Bénéton and Manent do not really map the way forward for Europe, let alone predict how the EU might unravel or not, but they do show us that resistance to the EU in the name of the nation and democracy by no means needs to consist of a reactionary clinging to hoary symbols and pat formulas, but at its best stands for substantive reasoning, cultivation of genuine citizenship, and mediation between the claims of the particular and the universal. I’ve been able to provide only the smallest taste here of how they show all that, and of their overall wisdom. 

P.S. I don’t know whether these guys would welcome the “postmodern conservative” tag, but our affinities with them are apparent enough. The Eiffel Tower in our masthead icon is there partly as an expression of that, but if you want to say more or ask about those affinities, comment away, or meet me over at the Waffle House.


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