Monday, May 30, 2005

"Non" Sense

It is the indisputable power of propaganda of every type that all one has to do to have a great falsehood accepted as a simple fact is to keep repeating that falsehood over and over again at a loud volume. Through sheer repetition almost any bankrupt idea can win the day. However, something of the same process can also happen without prior planning or dastardly intentions. A classic example can be seen in yesterday's referendum on the EU Constitution in France. As the vote loomed and its passage seemed more doubtful by the day, the newspapers were filled with commentary about exactly what was going on in France. What is interesting about this commentary is that nearly all of it was obviously absurd. (Head over to American Future for a comprehensive round-up.) What was at play here was not an attempt to mislead anyone about what is going on in France and in other places in Europe. No, what it is indicative of is the incoherent nature of the constitutional discussion going on right now. Because all anyone is hearing are these incoherent ramblings they have been accepted as reality. If some knowledgable journalist of European affairs were to wake up today after a ten-year long coma and be told by a colleague of the "prevailing opinion" being bandied about by politicians and the press this morning, I believe that journalist would regard his colleague as a lunatic.

For example, the most vocal opponents of the Constitution in France made the repeated complaint that the document was "too liberal." In fact it was claimed that the Constitution was some sort of Reagan/Thatcher plot to enslave the French people to the evil master Globalization, which would doom the French working class to permanent underemployment as Poles, Czechs, and (someday soon) Turks took their jobs by accepting the demeaning French minimum wage....or something like that. I found it a little hard to follow as I was laughing so hard. (Why do I picture a "Night of The Living Dead" zombie Ronald Reagan terrorizing poor French villagers who unwittingly flee straight into the arms of the "Global Economy"?)

It is difficult to see how exactly this Constitution, which enshrines the present European system of protectionism and subsidies, can be viewed as a capitulation to free and open markets, but it is. It is also difficult to see how this 450 page document micro-managing nearly every aspect of political and economic life could possibly be viewed as "too liberal," but it is. It is further difficult to see how anyone who notices the above two points, as many commentators have, could still insist on acting as if French public opinion makes sense, but they do.

It sometimes happens that that which lacks common sense or logical consistency on its surface sometimes hides a deeper inchoate meaning beneath. I would argue that is exactly what is going on in Europe today. The laughable rationales put forward by those voting "non" are not an attempt to mislead (as some who are calling these voters racists would have you think,) but are a failed attempt to express a reality only dimly perceived.

In an essay entitled "Unity and Diversity of Europe" the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset saw something of this European reality about 70 years ago. Writing in the 1930's Ortega had a prediction:

I therefore suggest that the reader spare the malice of a smile when I predict - somewhat boldly, in view of present appearances - a possible, a probable unification of the states of Europe. I do not deny that the United States of Europe is one of the poorest fantasies that has ever existed and I take no responsibility for what others have handed out under these verbal signs. But I do maintain that it is highly improbable that a society, a collectivity as ripe as that now formed by the peoples of Europe, should not move towards the creation of a state apparatus for the exercise of the European public power which already exists. It is not, then, a weakness for fantasy nor a leaning towards "idealism" which I despise and have fought all my life, that has brought me to this conclusion. It is historic realism that has made it clear to me that the unity of Europe as society is not an "ideal" but a very ancient daily fact, and having seen this fact one cannot but confront the probability of a general European state. [From History As A System, Norton, 1941, pp.52-3.]


For Ortega the truth of the "society of Europe" underlies all other political and social developments. Europe has a society because Europeans are forced to co-exist with one another. Custom and law come naturally from this condition, and are not brought about by human actions. "A society is not brought about by a willed agreement. Inversely, any such agreement presupposes the existence of a society, of people living together under certain customs, and the agreement can only determine one form or another of this coexistence, of this pre-existing society." [p. 50] The outline of this "pre-existing society" is exactly what constitutes the "unity" of Europe.

However, Ortega does not view this "unity" in a static manner. Indeed, for Ortega, European unity most clearly expresses itself through the dynamic qualities and plurality of European peoples. We can recognize at the same time both what differentiates Spaniards from Germans AND how they spring from a common societal heart. Europe would cease to be a European society without both aspects. "If the plurality is lost, the dynamic unity fades away." [p. 55] So while Ortega sees a formal governmental body for Europe as inevitable it will of necessity be limited, unless we wish to go down the path of creating what Ortega views as the homogenizating nightmare of the "mass man."

I think it is in light of these views that the French vote can be made sense of. While the specific character of the complaints about the EU Constitution are absurd, they all have something in common which might not be absurd. They all make a version of the claim that this Constitution would force them to be not like themselves but like someone else, such as the English or the Americans. I think it is obvious that this document will not make an American out of a Frenchman or an Englander out of a Dutch woman, but that doesn't mean that it isn't asking the French person to be less French or the Dutch person to be less Dutch. In this sense the French people have been unable to put their concerns into intelligible language, but they have been able to put it into intelligible action at the ballot box. As a deal making exercise this Constitution was probably the best deal the French people could have gotten, but I think by now it is clear that wasn't the point, at least not for them.

Ortega y Gasset claimed that you cannot have Europeans without also having French, Germans, Spanish, Dutch, Danes, English, et al...It might just be the French are saying exactly the same thing.

2 comments:

Marc Schulman said...

I just finished reading your post and think that your basic thesis is on the money: there is something terribly artificial about the EU. The same people who object to globalization have been carrying out a regional version of the same thing, producing the same worries (e.g., low-cost labor from Eastern Europe).

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

It should be clear by now that reservations about further integration in Europe are striking chords both on the left and the right. In the 90's most of the complaints in Europe came from the right only, and they generally concerned concrete actions taken at the EU level that those on the right felt infringed too much on national sovreignity.

It is totally different now. Both left and right have vauger concerns, but they obviously seem to have a single wellspring. And they are very deeply felt. Could you imagine an anti-EU RALLY sponsered by the Left in France ten years ago? I sure couldn't.

I believe we would have seen this dissatisfaction earlier if more countries had had the guts to let their people vote on the Constitution instead of just their elites.