Sunday, July 05, 2015

Fintan O'Toole and the imaginative foundations of political structures

From the Guardian:
Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination?

Fintan O'Toole

When I was a teenager in Dublin in the early 1970s, the phrase “We’re into Europe!” gained a peculiar currency. It was half-jokey but not really sardonic. You used it for good things that promised even better things – when a girl you fancied smiled at you or your team scored the first goal.

We were into Europe [the EEC].


But what did “Europe” mean in this sense? It was not a physical place. Ireland had, after all, always been part of Europe. And the EEC was not, in any case, Europe – it was a small fraction of the continent. But it wasn’t a mere set of trading and institutional arrangements either. It was a story, an imaginative fiction of the kind that Yuval Noah Harari evokes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He makes the point that the capacity to believe in fictional constructs is a defining element of what makes us human, because without it we cannot co-operate with people we do not know: “At the heart of our mass co-operation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination... There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.”

One of these enabling fictions is “Europe”. It is a story that most of the central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief. The question now is whether it still exists at all, whether “Europe” has lost its hold on our collective imagination. All the evidence suggests that it has.

In a remarkable outburst reported last week by the Observer, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, denounced the failure of his fellow EU leaders to agree on more than a voluntary plan to deal with the thousands of refugees and migrants landing on his country’s shores: “If this is your idea of Europe, keep it for yourself… you do not deserve to call yourself Europe. Either we have solidarity or we waste our time!”

In recent weeks, too, the appeals by leaders of Syriza in Greece to “our shared European values” have come to seem not just desperate but naive. It is as if the Greeks were appealing to medieval codes of chivalry or expecting Premier League footballers to respect 19th-century Corinthian values. “Europe” and “European values” seem, even as rhetorical gestures, entirely hollow. They are evoked now only to underline their absence.

One by one, the elements of the Europe story have fallen away. Democracy? ... The free movement of people? ... Thresholds of decency? Formulaic expressions of sympathy aside, there is little sense that the European Union as a whole finds it intolerable that hundreds of thousands of Greeks are living without electricity or that millions have no access to public health care.

The “ever closer union” envisaged by the EU’s founders has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent mixture of one-size-fits-all thinking and double standards. On the one hand, there is the absolute insistence that there can be no challenge to the technocratic formula for solving the eurozone crisis: austerity plus massive bank bailouts plus privatisation and the dismantling of social and labour protections.

On the other, there is a sharp moral and political divide between the creditor states and the debtor states, with a supposedly virtuous, prudent and righteous core beset by a feckless, reckless periphery. Or, if viewed from that periphery, between victimised citizens and a European political elite bent on punishing them for sins they did not commit on their own.

There is no “collective imagination” of the crisis – in one Europe, it is respectable, hard-working people being exploited by chaotic layabouts from the hot south; in the other, it is hard-pressed and equally hard-working people being sucked dry to feed foreign banks. The stories Europeans are telling themselves about what’s going on around them are not just different but mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

... the generation of leaders with memories of the Second World War – the likes of Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterand and Jacques Delors – passed on. With them has gone the urgency of imagining a European story, not as an abstract fable, but as a necessary alternative to the other European stories of Hitler and Stalin.

... In the technocratic mindset that has filled the vacuum where “Europe” used to be, the old story is just a sentimental romance. But there’s always a story – the old fable of democracy, solidarity and decency hasn’t been replaced by simple dull reality. What has taken its place is a narrative that poses as hard-headed realism but that is actually much more fantastical than the one that was constructed by the postwar generation. It has a wildly improbable plot in which years of austerity magically produce economic growth; mountains of public debt are paid off by shrinking economies; unaccountable experts know more about other countries than their own elected governments; and everyone lives happily ever after. The good are rewarded. The bad are punished but they repent in the end and return to the fold. There’s certainly a lot of imagination in this story. But its ability to sustain a collective enterprise among 28 stubbornly individual nations is negligible.

It is not entirely true, of course, that no one at all believes the old story of Europe. The last true believers are on rickety boats in the Mediterranean, trying to make their way to an imagined continent of compassion, solidarity and security. If they ever get to shore, they will find at best a grudging welcome. But those who purport to share their belief in what Europe means badly need some of their desperate optimism.

No comments:

Post a Comment