ZYGMUNT BAUMAN - Quo vadis, Europe? (or long-awaited requiem for the nation-state?)

Europeans, like most other inhabitants of the planet, are currently facing the crisis of ’politics as we know it’ - a state of “interregnum” – as the great Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci described a time in which the old is already dead or dying, but the new has not yet been born.

the nation-state is failing us on the global scale. It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence... our problems are globally produced, whereas the instruments of political action bequeathed by nation-states’ builders were cut to the measure of services territorial nation-states required; they prove therefore singularly unfit when it comes to handling global challenges..
In studying the set of fateful departures occurring in Europe three centuries ago, the eminent historian Reinhart Koselleck introduced a metaphor of climbing up to a yet unmapped and un-reached mountain pass. But as you try to reach that pass far up, you can only guess what sort of sight will open to you once (if) you finally arrive there.

All you know for sure until then is that as long as it takes to reach the edge of that steep slope, you need to keep climbing; you can't stop and settle, pitch tents and rest: first gusts of gale will blow tents away, and next torrential rainfall would wash them away. Even short of a gale or torrent, staying put in the middle of such a declivity feels utterly uncomfortable; one look at the abyss below you've left behind but into which you may fall back with but one false step, will give you unbearable vertigo... So you keep climbing - up to that unknown place you hope will save you from the horrors you know...

Fitting metaphor for how we feel, we the twenty-first century Europeans, suspended betwixt and between a past full of terrors and the distant attempt full of risks. We can't know what we are to experience when you get there. But we do know that stopping now and keeping mum is not an option. Though neither can we stop guessing at what we might see and feel once we reach the pass...

At present, all settlements arrived at en route as we confront successive challenges and disagreements exude an air of temporality. They seem and indeed all too often prove to be only ’until further notice’, with a cancellation clause built in - just as our divisions and coalitions are ad hoc, frail and half-hearted. Worse still, we find it difficult to make a sensible story out of our past undertakings - our agenda is constantly a-changing and our attention abominably shifty for such a story to be established.

A few weeks ago, on the occasion of launching a new UK ITV series on current affairs, the highly respected Radio Times weekly sorrowfully opined that, "A new monthly strand looking at international news in greater depth has to be a good thing. The trouble is, the news agenda moves fast, and when headlines are dominated by Ukraine, Syria and China, it looks like a missed opportunity to have your first edition focus on Rwanda, Colorado and Norway...".    

All the same, in Le Monde for February 2, Nicolas Truong, referring to the views expressed for some time by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Alain Finkielkraut, presented two opposite scenarios for the future of our, the Europeans', cohabitation; the only two scenarios to choose from as no other seemed to him realistic or indeed conceivable.

Cohn-Bendit, in cooperation with Guy Verhofstadt published a manifesto, "Debout Europe!" in which he promotes the fast track out of and beyond the myth of the nation-state’s territorial sovereignty and towards European Federation, stamped and sealed with a ’European identity’ yet to be patiently and consistently constructed. Finkielkraut is no less firmly convinced that the future of Europe is in its unity - but believes that it needs to be a unity (cohabitation? cooperation? solidarity?) of national identities.

Finkielkraut recalls Milan Kundera's insistence on Europe being embodied in its accomplishments, landscapes, cities and monuments; Cohn-Bendit invokes the authority of Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt and Ulrich Beck, united as they are in their opposition to nationalism. These, logically speaking, are the two paths leading from the place in which we've collectively fetched ourselves up on the eve of the European parliamentary elections. Perhaps they point in opposite directions, though perhaps they are not at all as irreconcilable as their promoters aver...

Beyond doubt, the present institutional structure of the European Union, incoherent as it is, with the policy without politics conducted in Brussels set against the politics without policy for which the European Council is notorious and the parliament with a lot of talking and little power - a structure unsustainable in a long run and crying out for a thorough rehashing - feeds simultaneously both above mentioned tendencies.

Eighty years ago Edmund Husserl warned - so Nicolas Truong reminds us - that "the gravest danger menacing Europe is its lassitude". Time marches on, but warnings do not age. Time to dismiss them as outdated has not yet arrived. Neither is it likely to arrive in the foreseeable future. 
The modern chapter of Europe’s attempts at unity, short of the unity of peaceful coexistence, came after the most successful thus far and most durable accomplishment of the Roman Empire - and after the posthumous attempt of its reincarnation in the phantom of a Holy Roman Empire bit the dust on the post-Reformation religious battlefields.

It started in 1555 in a German town of Augsburg, to which the ruling dynasties of the parts of Europe most devastated by warring religious factions sent their plenipotentiaries to discuss and hopefully agree a formula of armistice capable of stopping the first (though as it was to transpire, by no means the last) all-out fratricidal war of the Europeans. The formula: cuius regio, eius religio, was coined and agreed, but the armistice needed almost a century more of killings, burnings, destruction and epidemics to be accepted, embraced and put into practice; till 1648, when spokesmen for the main adversaries sat once more around the negotiating table, this time in Münster and Osnabrück, to arrive at an agreement recorded in history as the ’Westphalian settlement’.

Once incorporated into the practice of governance, the formula of Westphalian settlement proved to be uniquely suitable for 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 by-Europe’s-power-assisted transformation of the world, divided between the scions of divinely anointed dynasties into a world sliced into states resting their legitimation and so also their claim to the obedience of their subjects (that is, the population inside their boundaries integrated by the retrospectively postulated common origin and now also by the state-assured commonality of the future, into a nation) on ’national interest’.

The snag is, that it is also counter-factual and increasingly so - its premises being delusionary, its postulates unrealistic and its pragmatic recommendations impossible to fulfil. In the course of the last half century the processes of deregulation originated, promoted and supervised by state governments joining voluntarily or pushed to join the so-called ’neo-liberal revolution’, have resulted in the growing separation and rising probability of divorce between power (that is, the capacity of having things done) and politics (that is, the ability to decide, which things need and ought to be done). 

Many of the powers previously contained inside the borders of the nation-state evaporated and flew into the no-man’s land of the “space of flows” (as Manuel Castells dubbed the politics-free expanses), whereas politics has remained as before, territorially fixed and constrained.

That process has acquired all the markings of a self-propelling and self-intensifying tendency. Seriously drained of powers 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 into the care of already ’deregulated’ market forces, evicting them thereby from the realm of political responsibility and supervision. This results in the rapid fall of popular trust in the governments’ ability to deal effectively with the threats to the existential condition of their citizens. Citizens believe less and less that governments are capable of delivering on their promises.
They are not entirely wrong. One tacit yet crucial assumption underlying trust in the efficacy of parliamentary democracy is that citizens decide in elections 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 threw that state of affairs into spectacular relief.

As John Gray, one of the most insightful analysts of the roots of the present-day world-wide instability, observes in the preface to the new (2009) edition of his False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, when asking why the recent economic collapse failed to increase international cooperation but instead released centrifugal pressures -  
“governments are among the casualties of the crisis, and the logic of each of them acting to protect its citizens is greater insecurity for all”. And this is because “the worst threats to humankind are global in nature”, while “there is no prospect of any effective global governance to deal with them”.
As Benjamin Barber recently observed (in If Mayors Ruled the World, 2013)-“after a long history of regional success, the nation-state is failing us on the global scale. It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence.”
Indeed, our problems are globally produced, whereas the instruments of political action bequeathed by nation-states’ builders were cut to the measure of services territorial nation-states required; they prove therefore singularly unfit when it comes to handling global challenges... read more:

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