A Populist Uprising
The nation-state and the political future of Europe.
Reverberating through the chattering classes of Europe and America is the recent triumph of Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence party (UKIP) in the European parliament elections. UKIP bested both Labour and the Tories not only in England but also in Wales and Scotland. The victory might be explained away by low turnout, but that apathy itself is commentary on the EU’s unpopularity.
Farage and UKIP members of the European parliament
One thing is certain: Farage’s dance card in Brussels will be full. There, he will be joined by other rising populist and nationalist parties from France, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Farage, a loud and proud classical liberal democrat, has already indicated that he doesn’t have much in common with the more deeply nationalist nativism that animates the anti-EU parties in other countries. But they all share a desire to defend the nation-state as a political form against the depoliticizing or deeply administrative “functional” transfer of authority and legitimacy to the bureaucrats in Brussels.
UKIP’s victory may one day be viewed as the moment when the post-political fantasy that is the EU began its retreat. The disembodied abstraction that is the emerging European state seems mainly to serve the interests of a globalized meritocracy based on productivity. For many ordinary Europeans, wages are stagnating or declining, worthwhile work is scarce, and it’s impossible to connect one’s self-interest with the alleged benefits of being European—as opposed to being British or French.
Pierre Manent, the most profound of the Euroskeptical philosophers (and no populist), has long argued that the depoliticizing European “human rights” project is animated by a hatred of bodies. Relational beings with bodies find their homes, their security, their personal significance, and truthful self-understandings through participation in strong, stable institutions. These include the nation understood as a political community with shared memories, loyalties, culture, and virtues. They also include the family and the church understood as an organized body of thought and action. It’s a fantasy to believe that people could flourish in a world where they’re understood as autonomous persons and not as citizens, creatures, parents, children, and so forth.
Disembodied Europe (the EU has no definite boundaries), we can see, is incapable of defending itself or even generating enough children to perpetuate itself. It is a fantasy to believe that it can have a future without some dependence on the love and loyalty of citizens who are more than citizens. The truth is that it is a fantasy to believe that the universal human rights shared by all autonomous beings could be the foundation of a new world order, even if it is an understandable reaction to the cruel, ideological utopianism of 20th-century totalitarians—that free persons could be reconstituted as citizens (or comrades) and nothing more. Both extremes depend on unrealistically abstracting from the multifaceted truth about who each of us as a free and relational being really is.
It turns out, of course, that extremes are typically more similar than they first appear. The ideology of both the EU and the Leninists (who, of course, descended from the French revolutionaries) is that nothing stands between the solitary person and the state. In one case the state is understood as ministerial to the comfortably unfettered existence of the person, and in the other the citizen is understood to be fodder for the state’s glorious historical future. In both cases, ideology denies the truth about personal identity and personal significance.
Roger Scruton—England’s most accomplished conservative since Edmund Burke and, like Manent, a longstanding Euroskeptic—has written that both the “U.N. Charter of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights belong to the species of utopian thinking” and aren’t so different from what Marx wrote about the withering away of the state. Those charters imagine that a regime that effectually secures rights could be “without history, without prior attachments, without any of the flesh-and-blood passions that make government so necessary in the first place.” That means, of course, that the promotion of an “enlightened internationalism” opposed to all “local chauvinism” and repudiating all claims to loyalty for “inheritance and home” assumes we are or can become ghosts and angels. One problem among many, of course, is that, whatever we might imagine, relational beings with bodies moved by ambition, love, hate, animosity, death, and so forth will remain. And ghosts can’t protect us from whatever and whoever threatens those we know and love.
Scruton concludes that the main threat to the future of rights or the free person in Europe today is not “xenophobia” but its opposite—the assertion that national or political freedom is an oxymoron because it defines or constrains the autonomous individual. The idea “that a citizen owes loyalty to a country, a territory, a jurisdiction and all those who reside in it” is “the root idea of democratic government.”
It’s true enough that “that idea has no place in the hearts and minds of many Europeans today,” those prosperous and sophisticated cosmopolitans who enjoy privileges they believe they’ve earned or are entitled to by right and so have no corresponding responsibilities. But the truth is that international legislators—from the U.N. to the WTO to the EU—are all necessarily “parasitic on national loyalty and could not survive without it.”
The anti-EU uprising was predominately working class—meaning on the more modest side of the middle class. The most truthful economic explanation is that the global competitive marketplace has meant, for some, stagnating wages, the dearth of worthwhile work, and increasingly pathological family lives. The situation in America isn’t so different. The productive future is bright for the cognitive elite, but many or most people are becoming more marginally productive. This form of inequality may be mitigated in Europe by expansive welfare states, but not by as much as Americans often think. And for demographic reasons alone there’s no alternative here or there to trimming and reconfiguring what we call entitlements. No American, we hope, can praise class-based envy and resentment, except to say that the best antidote to envy is being satisfied with the life you have, and that means having what it takes in every way to take care of your own.
By turning to Manent and Scruton, we suggest there is meaning in the election results that goes beyond mindless opposition to all immigration and international trade. And certainly we don’t agree with those right-wing Europeans who admire the political authoritarianism, aggressive nationalism, statist religious orthodoxy, and repressive natalism of Putin’s Russia. Like Manent and Scruton, we choose the liberalism of European civilization over Putin’s authoritarian vision of Russian civilization. But we can see why so many ordinary Europeans have awakened to the fear that the EU is morphing into less a democracy than a technocracy, in which the technocrats will be unresponsive to the needs—both relational and economic (love and work)—of ordinary people. From the beginning of modern liberalism—and certainly in America—the self-interest of the free individual has been limited and directed by the relational responsibilities shared by all people and citizens.
But even in America a kind of technocratic libertarianism—found both in the Democrats’ Silicon Valley and in the complacent fold of oligarchic Republicans—has neglected the need for policies aimed at sustaining the relational contexts on which ordinary people especially depend. So we endorse Yuval Levin’s disruptive thought that the excessive libertarianism of some American conservatives can be cured by learning something from Burke about the enduring social nature of man.
Americans can hope that the political lesson drawn by Europeans from this Euroskeptical uprising is that the indispensable political form of liberal civilization in the modern world is the nation-state. That civilized nation of shared customs, conventions, memories, loyalties, property and personal rights, generous tolerance, and moral and spiritual virtues is something more than the merely convenient contractual state described by Thomas Hobbes and something less than the omnicompetent state that emerged from the French Revolution.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana professor in the department of government and international studies at Berry College.
Recent Blog Posts