The present European crisis is manifestly economic, with insolvency just over the horizon for much of the continent. But, as I see it, there is another profound matter that must be put into the calculus in assessing Europe today: the post-modern sensibility.
This sensibility includes the following characteristics: ethical relativism, the death of the Enlightenment meta-narrative, and the deconstruction of reason.
European leaders often act as if there aren’t historical antecedents. The new Europe not only rejects the past, it rejects the ethical foundation on which Europe was built. For example, the Treaty of Westphalia, which established nation-states, has been deposited on the ash heap of history in an effort to adduce consolidation, or at least the consciousness of consolidation. In doing so, however, it has undermined social and customary rules of human engagement and heightened social tensions.
Then there is the virtual destruction of the European meta-narrative that relied on a defense of Christian civilization and with it the conditions attached to the Enlightenment, i.e., individual rights, the rule of law, and a respect for private property. In the emerging Europe, with large Muslim minorities, individual rights are challenged by group rights, law is only what is defensible, and private property is at risk through cradle-to-grave tax policies designed for the equalization of privilege.
As a consequence, there is no longer a basis for democracy in Europe. Procedures dictate policies. The metaphysical and religious dimensions of life have been replaced by the political in which a Hobbesian worldview of power and influence is what counts. The European Union is, in fact, a closed society run by bureaucrats. Right and wrong are the subjects of procedures rather than antecedent conditions, and truth is whatever Brussels’ bureaucrats say it is.
While there is much discussion of social justice, both the concept and the praxis suggest that homogenization is the goal. Rather than tension between liberte and egalite there is only equality elevated into a strategy for the distribution of wealth and benefits. In the past — a somewhat faded past — justice was understood as conventional wisdom along with fairness. To use the language of Ferdinand Tonnies, it was the difference between “gesellschaft” based on contracts and “gemeinschaft” based on custom. If one were to analyze Europe today, “geminschaft” would be seen as a casualty of modernity and the bureaucrats who are defining the new Europe.
The question that remains is whether Europe can reorder priorities so that civil society can emerge, despite the multi-ethnic and religious composition of the population. Can a Europe that ignores historical antecedents of the nation-state create a post-national soul, a European identity? What unites a nation are people who want to live together and share a set of principles. Can Europe overcome the objection to unification? As Jurgen Habermas asked, can a people be construed through perpetual politics without a conceptual charter from which consensus is engendered?
Americans feel they are a single people. In fact, the United States “is”; by contrast, the European states “are.” Do Europeans have the requisite will to create an entity that is more than geographic, one that inspires tolerance, respect, and sacrifice? In Kantian terms, can Europe build political institutions that foster Enlightenment principles?
So far, success is fleeting. There are interests, but not unity. The “center” in Europe is not holding and the threat from external and internal Muslim extremism makes the task even more formidable than it would be under normal circumstances. Political correctness blinds politicians to the constitutive politics that should be cultivated. Instead, everyone is “off the leash” and Europeans are obliged to fend for themselves in a mad scramble for representation in institutions that do not reflect the will of the governed.
Can this change? Of course, faith is the harbinger of change and those who have it could develop the institutions for unity. But at the moment, doubt dominates hope and Europe is in the grip of powerful and relentless forces that have to be overcome. It certainly is not a task for the fainthearted.