Life after Europe

the Post-Europe Project

We share the article by Darian Meacham and Francesco Tava, published on OpenDemocracy on 8 November 2014

The Post-Europe Project may sound a bit ominous. The aim is not to bring about or even hasten the end of Europe; whatever that might mean, our help is probably not needed for it - Europe is perfectly capable on its own (see here for one way how). 

Hopefully though, the name is provocative. Much of the debate surrounding the idea of Europe or the question of Europe seems to fall into one of three non-mutually-exclusive camps: rather technocratic discussion about the formal structure of governing institutions, eurocentrism or anti-eurocentrism (the latter being different from euro-skepticism, which often remains eurocentric).

In a recent piece, John Drabinski, Professor of Black Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, described eurocentrism in reference to the great Frantz Fanon’s comment that “Europe takes itself as its own measure”. Another, rather coarse, way of expressing this would be to say that the sense of superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world is very deeply and often subconsciously ingrained in European cultural and political life.

In a post-European world this conviction has deleterious effects on the way that geopolitical challenges are addressed at all levels, and in today’s world nearly all major political issues are geopolitical in their nature. The philosopher Simon Glendinning puts it well when he writes: “For a Eurocentric thinker Europe is not just one sample of human culture among others, not just one regional culture among others – but is the best example, the head of the pack: the avant-garde for the whole of humanity in its history and its development.”[1]

There is however a very apparent risk that the critical response to this attitude can become a form of self-loathing, an unreflective anti-eurocentrism that thinks of Europe as an “undifferentiated shit factory” as the philosopher Paul Moyaert once put it.[2] Unreflective anti-eurocentrism risks overlooking many of the accomplishments, especially of post-WWII Europe. An unscientific and anecdotal analysis of the European psyche suggests that these two positions - eurocentrism and (unreflective) anti-eurocentrism - are often held in concert with one another in a form of debilitating cognitive dissonance, a particularly European pathology.

Jean-Paul Sartre described this phenomenon lucidly in his introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth:

When a Frenchman, for example, says to other Frenchmen “The country is done for” — which has happened, I should think, almost every day since 1930 — it is emotional talk; burning with love and fury, the speaker includes himself with his fellow-countrymen. And then, usually, he adds “Unless …”.[3]

Things do not seem to have changed a great deal since 1961. A couple of years ago the (American) proponent of European Social Democracy, Jeremy Rifkin, spoke in Brussels on the topic of his book The Third Industrial Revolution. Speaking to a sold-out audience of Brussels’ political class and Eurocrats, Rifkin started with a warning, “Europe is in trouble!”, which was met by furrowed brows and troubled nods. “But, Europe is special”, rays of hope suddenly appeared in the sea of worried eyes, “Europe deserved the Nobel peace prize” (which it had recently awarded itself in the same year the EC and ECB had insisted on the termination of health insurance for unemployed Greeks after one year[4]), cue applause starting. “Europe can prosper and save not only capitalism but also its way of life if it carefully follows these steps...” - thunderous applause.[5]

Unfortunately the relieved self-congratulations were brought to a halt by a respondent from New Dehli who joked (something along the lines of) “I hope that as you continue your lecture tour in New Delhi and Beijing you will not tell that same story, but with India or China as the hero.” The gasps of dismay were audible in the excellent acoustics of the packed concert hall. It soon turned to anger: how dare you question Europe’s special place in the world.

The term post-Europe describes this situation. It is our current one. Europe has been pushed from the centre of global affairs. The small continent, its nation-states and its peoples who once ruled nearly all the world are now at the mercy of global forces and dynamics that though initiated by them are now not only outside of their control, but are more likely to originate and be guided by powers in Washington, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai or Beijing than Paris, Berlin, or anywhere in London outside of its financial centre.

The response to Asian neo-mercantilism up to now seems to consist in a form of self-colonisation. The mantra echoing through nearly all the halls of power is that European national economies must regain their competitiveness through strict budgetary control measures, even at the expense of quality of life and human development, and reduction of labour costs so as to allow competition with the territories where nominally European corporations (among others) continue to move labour and production.

The logic of colonial economic exploitation has in a word become deterritorialized and found its way home. This “liberalisation” of Europe is now coupled with a fundamentally illiberal backlash. The rise of xenophobic politics in Europe displaces concerns about economic, cultural, and ultimately existential insecurity onto the image of the foreigner come to take advantage of a largesse that Europe can no longer afford. A fortress is called for in response. But barbed wire is only good for keeping people out. It does little to stop the flows of information and capital that truly mark the post-European era.

To guide us on our way

Thus far, the story is familiar and well rehearsed, a version of it told by both the nay- and soothsayers of growth. This is also the context within which the Post-Europe Project sets out its approach and aim of philosophically analysing this situation. One of our intellectual guides in this attempt is the Czech philosopher and political dissident Jan Patočka (1907-1977), from whom we borrow the expression “post-Europe”.

For Patočka the post-European epoch also represented something other than a litany of disaster and setback. It was an opportunity to think Europe differently and in fact to return to an investigation of some of the concepts that lay at the foundation of European rationality, but had long since been covered over. The post-European situation was not a new occurrence in Patočka’s mind. Though it culminated in the destruction of the two World Wars, it was a process that had been ongoing since the fifteenth century and could be best characterised in terms of an underlying shift in European rationality from a metaphysic of powers to a metaphysic of forces.

What does this mean? Put simply, powers are plural in aim and origin. Within the political sphere, powers are an expression and a reinforcement of freedom. Power in this sense is creative, it brings our world to appearance in this or that way, and power of course can be oriented. From the ancients (Aristotle) we learn that political power should be aimed at human flourishing, not happiness necessarily, but facilitating the good life. This can be understood in terms of the facilitating and developing of human capacities not just for basic survival but also to develop emotionally, rationally, culturally; to have flourishing family, love, cultural and intellectual lives if we should so choose.

In other words, all those aspects of the soft underbelly of life that the politicians we continue to elect tell us there is no more money for, but which in fact form what we value about human life. When we talk about human flourishing, this is the starting point.

Force, by contrast, is an abstraction of power, one dimension of power that is raised to the highest stature at the expense of all the other dimensions. Force in this sense is the application of physical change from one body to another. It is without reflection or even intention, though of course it can be directed.

Force, significantly, can be quantified in the way that power as previously defined cannot. What Patočka detected in European history could be translated as a shift from power to force as the central dynamic of the public realm. And to what use was this force to be put? To the accumulation of energy, quantified now primarily in terms of units of capital (currency, labour productivity, etc.). Today’s growth fetishism in the face of potentially catastrophic global challenges that require power and not force to address them is a perfect illustration of what Patočka dismayingly refers to as the metaphysics of force that now accounts for all being.

In the period following the two World Wars, Patočka coined the term “supercivilization”, in order to describe that sort of accumulation and rationalization of power qua force that characterized the policy of both the “kingdom of managers” (as he called the capitalist states) and the stolid bureaucraticism of the USSR. One concept, one single root, to describe both the pathological modifications assumed by the opposing ideologies that were relegating Europe to an edge between colliding empires. In doing this, Patočka was probably the first European intellectual that, from behind the Iron Curtain, was able to think of Europe beyond its inner division, critically overcoming the limit of the Berlin wall, almost forty years before its actual breakdown”.

Some years later, in the early seventies, Patočka came to define as “post-Europe” the condition assumed by the old continent, after decades of geographical and political marginalization. This new idea stems from years of disenchantment, after the failure of all the hopes to reform the socialist state, the suppression of the Prague spring in 1968, and the beginning of a suffocating political normalization in Czechoslovakia, aimed at restoring the old monolithic power.

But Patočka also acknowledges the social accomplishments of a Europe that had been pushed out of its role as the driving geopolitical force in the world - the welfare state. Laudable as these may be or have been, they also served to exacerbate tension between Western Europe and the rest of the world, notably Europe’s colonial possessions, which suffered under the full weight of the logic of force and its imperative of maximum energy extraction from the colonised territories and the bodies that inhabited them.[6]

The social accomplishments of post-war Europe, i.e. the near universalization in western Europe through the mechanisms of the welfare state, of the basic conditions for human flourishing, while impressive, also brought into clearer perspective the massive challenge or rather imperative of global justice now facing a post-European world. Europe had in part achieved its miracle on the back of the rest of the world; this now had (and still has) to be accounted for.[7]

Forced from the centre of history, demobilised, but also applying, to some extent, its rational capacities to “social achievement”, post-Europe is allowed an opportunity to engage in what Patočka (partially following his teacher Husserl) called “historical insight”, in the sense of an “[…] insight into the fundamental moral relationships between progress and decline, between the possibility of freedom and its undermining”.[8] The kind of insight that Patočka envisioned would not just provide clearer hindsight, but would give an account of the genesis of current social and political structures. It would attempt a kind of genealogy of powers, in the sense discussed earlier.

And by bringing to the fore these processes of social and political creation, they could at last be evaluated ethically, that is, from the perspective of what notions of flourishing or the good life guided them. This activity, at once philosophical, historical, ethical and political was the possibility afforded to post-European Europe - Europe after Europe - to revitalise its long extinguished powers of rationality in the service of human flourishing and not simply, accumulation.

What Europe, after Europe?

In our opinion, such a philosophical and historical engagement with the concrete structures and institutions of European life is where any hope for a European project aimed not only at facilitating the conditions of human flourishing for its citizens, but also addressing the challenges of global justice and climate risk, must rest. Posing the question what Europe, after Europe? – what Europe could possibly reorient itself toward flourishing and away from vulgar notions of growth, wealth and accumulation? - demands vision.

To think this Europe from behind the Iron Curtain at a time not of possibility but of catastrophe, when the meaningfulness of the word Europe must have seemed to have vanished, is indicative of an intense political imagination. Patočka’s was probably the same kind of imagination as that shown by the director of the Hungarian News Agency, when in 1956, during the Soviet invasion of Budapest, he sent to the world a press release ending with the words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe”. Milan Kundera, recalling this episode, raised this simple question: what Europe could this man ever have in mind, in that precise moment? This is quite simply the type of imagination we think is now needed and the question that must be asked.

We could put this differently and say that the only way to rid ourselves of an ideological interpretation of Europe aimed at determining some sort of European uniqueness, violently defending its identities, its borders, its peoples, religions and races, must consist in opting for a properly ethical interpretation of Europe, as demanded by Kundera’s question.

“Single thought”

Opposed to this attempt to rethink the very idea of Europe stands what Patočka referred to as the metaphysics of force, or what Ignacio Ramonet, Spanish writer and editor of Le Monde Diplomatique from 1990-2008, referred to as La pensée unique (single thought). Ramonet describes “single thought” as an anonymous discourse that has colonised nearly all the remaining dimensions of the public sphere. Its first principle is that “economy overrules politics”. The political advisor and businessman Alain Minc, puts it more bluntly, “capitalism cannot collapse, it is the natural state of society. Democracy is not the natural state of society; the market is”.

Single thought, in this context, represents the never-ending will to barter human freedom, with all the difficulties we encounter to achieve it and defend it, for a clearer and indisputable availability of “economic facts” at our disposal for immediate use. It is the correlate to Thatcher’s famous dictum “there is no alternative”. It is such single thinking that led the Troika of Greek creditors to demand that the Greek Government cut off health insurance for the unemployed after one year, in what is a violation of, at least the spirit of, article 35 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.[9]

It is this thinking that leads the EU to abandon the search and rescue of desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. It is even present in the new European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker’s acknowledgement that “Europe’s social dimension” must be brought back to the fore of policy considerations. These examples are meant as concrete illustrations of what Ramonet meant by “single thought” or Patočka by “metaphysics of force”. This thinking is prevalent across nearly all mainstream European political discourse. It needs to be identified and called out for its narrow, lacking in imagination, view of human possibilities. Politics reduced to the handmaiden of economic thinking which sees growth, expansion and accumulation as the only measures of development will not be able to address the challenges that Europe faces. This much we think is clear. Only a redirecting which comes from the underpinning philosophical idea of Europe - an ethical-political vision - can create the conditions in which another future is possible.

The Post-Europe Project

The aim of the Post-Europe Project is to draw upon resources in the philosophical tradition to think the post-European condition. That is, not solely to search for economic or political mechanisms that would mitigate or possibly end the current European Crisis - we don’t think that is possible - but rather to fundamentally reconsider the possibilities for Europe.

Patočka’s thought, of which we have given a very coarse sketch here, is but one line of entry into this enormous task. Our goal can be nothing less than the elusive historical-philosophical “insight into the fundamental moral relationships between progress and decline, between the possibility of freedom and its undermining”. And we begin with some hypotheses to be considered and argued through:

  1. The post-European condition requires that Europeans think critically and abandon the unreflective eurocentrism and assurance of European superiority that marks so much of the political, economic and cultural discourse within the European sphere. How such ingrained attitudes might be approached critically is anyone’s guess, but figuring this out will be a task particularly relevant to the social and human sciences.
  2. The aim of political life is the facilitation and development of the capabilities necessary for human flourishing. Economics must be subservient to politics and not used with the claim of objectivity to smuggle ideology into politics. Ideology should acknowledge itself as such. Understanding what flourishing means is a political and philosophical task.
  3. Individual nation states are no longer capable of protecting their citizens’ interests against global market forces; transnational, European, governance, regulatory and civic structures are necessary. The current ones are not performing their function. The post-European perspective demands a Euro-critical (not Euro-Skeptical) stance towards the institutions of the EU. The latter we think closes down discussions of post and trans-national democratic institutions: the former expands these discussions far beyond what is currently readily available.
  4. The post-European perspective has a global scope. In the words of Lula de Silva: “The construction of the European Union is not just a European legacy, but rather part of the world's heritage.” In this sense, the philosophical insight into Europe that we intend to undertake should be interpreted as an inquiry into the most problematic traits of today’s world. Not just Europeans, but the entire world are responsible architects of what Europe - or, better said, post-Europe - really is. This vision is anything but Eurocentric. We think the idea of post-Europe can become as a useful (not unique) tool to tackle global issues. But to do that, the idea of Europe needs contamination with what is theoretically outside of it, giving up the idea of any sort of superiority of Europe to other polities.
  5. The post-European perspective must have a global justice dimension. Patočka’s attention to the tension between the “blessed haves and those dying from hunger on a planet rich in energy” contains an ethical imperative. We can quote Lula again here: “instead of lowering the standards of European workers' rights against the competition of workers from emerging countries, what is needed is to raise their standards of living to levels similar to those of the Europeans.” That such a global justice imperative is not compatible with current levels of consumption in the rich world seems a political taboo. This taboo must be confronted by an attempt to think flourishing beyond growth and possibly more controversy, the necessary centrality of the notion of sacrifice to any idea of global economic and social solidarity.
  6. We acknowledge these as contentious statements that invite argument and disagreement, but insist on their importance to the debate.

[1] Simon Glendinning, “Derrida and Europe beyond Eurocentrism and Anti-Eurocentrism

[2] We quote Rudi Visker quoting Paul Moyaert in “Schizophrénie et paranoïa, in A. Vergote and P. Moyaert (eds.) Psychoanalyse: l’homme et ses destins, Louvain/Paris: Éditions Peeters, 1993, p. 261.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Preface to The Wretched of the Earth

[4] See, “Amid Cutbacks, Greek Doctors Offer Message to Poor: You Are Not Alone.” Liz Alderman 24 October 2012

[5] I am rather liberally paraphrasing here - Darian Meacham.

[6] “The gigantic work of economic renewal, the unheard of and even undreamed of social achievement which blossomed in a Europe excluded from world history, shows that this continent has opted for demobilisation because it has no other option. That contributes to the gap between the blessed haves and those who are dying from hunger on a planet rich in energy-thus intensifying the state of war. Jan Patočka. 1996. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. E. Kohak (tr.). Chicago: Open Court, p. 132.

[7] This happened in more than one fashion, colonial exploitation being the most obvious, but as Patočka points outs, Europe also dragged the whole world into its internal conflicts in the twentieth-century; it’s social accomplishments following WWII were in large parts made possible by financing and military protection against internal and external challenges, from the United States, the inheritor of Europe’s imperial power. A decentred Western Europe enjoyed a privileged state following the war, one not bestowed upon the colonial dominions which had been dragged into the war and suffered greatly.

[8] See J. Patočka, Europa und Nach-Europa. Die nacheuropäische Epoche und ihre geistigen Problem.

[9] Article 35 reads: “Everyone has the right of access to preventive health care and the right to benefit from medical treatment under the conditions established by national laws and practices. A high level of human health protection shall be ensured in the definition and implementation of all the Union's policies and activities.” The escape clause for the Troika (ECB, EC, and IMF) here lies in the term “national laws and practices”, a demand that Greece change its national laws sidesteps violating the Charter. According to the New York Times, “Technically, those Greeks who cannot pay are entitled to free care. But the bureaucracy can be overwhelming. Ms. Ragamb, a former hairdresser whose unemployment benefits and health insurance ran out six months ago, said she was still waiting to get the right papers.”

Francesco Tava, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of the West of England in Bristol

25 November 2014

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