A Populist Uprising
The nation-state and the political future of Europe.
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.
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