As the seemingly agreed European-British trade deal approaches ratification, there has been a considerable degree of introspection over quiet glasses of port during the Christmas holiday, in consideration of what it allmeans. It does seem to be an important moment in the development of the European Union – it is certainly that for the UK – but what does it tell us about the European Project?
The decade from 2008 to 2018 was probably the worst in the history of post-War European integration, from the financial crisis, to the sovereign debt crisis, and (lest we think ‘Brexit’ was anything other than a derivative portmanteau) the risk of ‘Grexit’, the migrant crisis, countless terror attacks, the Brexit vote itself, and Donald Trump’s rejection of internationalism with its tacit approval for Russian aggression on Europe’s eastern borders.
The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white.
The genealogical method, where an idea is traced back to its roots as one would map a family tree, began in the nineteenth century substantially, it seems, with Nietzsche and in particular On the Genealogy of Morals. It is in one sense an attempt to escape the trappings of history, to understand the lineage of ideas in the context of their time. In another, it is an attempt to loose ourselves from the alienating influences of modernity, stripping ourselves of prejudice and ‘education’. For the independent researcher, it appears to me to be an essential tool in understanding things, and in plotting a research agenda.
In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty.
Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.
Attending for a while to more immediate political concerns: Brexit. A story today suggested that Ireland should plan to leave the EU should Brexit be as hard and as cold as it promises to be. It struck me that it is in Britain’s interests to inflict significant damage on Ireland for several reasons. Primary amongst them is the rationale that Britain needs to divide Europe in order to find the best deal for itself. A divided and fractured Europe will make those who wish to defend the union more disposed to compromise. Therefore its strategies for dealing with the marginal nations – with Greece, with the Netherlands, and with Portugal – will be just as important as those strategies for dealing with France and Germany. Ireland is special, in that it shares a land border, and where there remains the possibility of terrorism – even if diminished – from a history all too recent.
The international system is a complex and convoluted thing, and sets the framework against which States are measured for their effectiveness, righteousness, or other measures that could serve as proxies for legitimacy: transparency, robustness, even happiness, or goodness. According to these indices, Ireland performs reasonably well – very well actually. It is the seventh most ‘unfragile’ country in the world; the eleventh most ‘good’; the 18th most transparent; and the 19th happiest. Most of these indices combine different metrics such as GDP, social metrics like unemployment, education rates, and so on, which tend to mean that Ireland – and other countries – won’t deviate too much from one ranking to the next. So Ireland performs well as a country. However, the combination of the EU Crisis, Brexit, and Trump’s America seem to represent a trifecta of bad things over which Ireland has little or no control, and could send the country hurtling down those indices. So if Ireland has so little control over these shaping factors, is Ireland in fact a legitimate country, a genuinely sovereign power?
Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times declares our time a crisis for liberalism, the left having ‘lost its way’, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It’s been a popular theme. In 1969, Ted Lowi declared the end of liberalism, in favour of interest group liberalism, in part a kind of elaboration on Eisenhower’s theme of the military-industrial complex. The liberalism of which we speak has long been defined in terms of economics and economic goods, how the distribution of resources and the freedom that comes with fair access to those resources, can allow mankind to flourish. Friedman’s classic Capitalism and Freedom from 1962 defined the concept, which was ultimately routed in eighteenth century enlightenment thinking, and in particular the French Revolution. Its progression through International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twentieth century brought at its end an essential global consensus: Liberal Democracy was it. This was the end of history. Continue reading “Neonihilism and the Failure of Liberalism”→