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By Howard Richards
Now a hue and cry has gone up that Europe is in danger. The continued existence of Europe’s core ideals –of its very essence– is said to be threatened. The occasion of today’s hue and cry is the possibility that the populist far right might sweep the elections of May 2019. I take this opportunity to question what I take to be the conventional wisdom of the official story.
The official story, as I detect it in the mainstream media, is that the world is divided into two kinds of people.
One kind, the ‘good people’, are rational and civilized. They believe in freedom, in human rights, in free trade, in capitalism properly regulated; they read Goethe; they visit the art treasures of The Louvre and other fine museums; they listen to Luciano Pavarotti, they support the European Union. Some, like the 50 intellectuals who recently signed a manifesto declaring that Europe is in peril, also read Erasmus, Dante, and Comenius.
The other kind, the ‘bad people’, are a grab bag of diverse extremists. What they have in common is that they are irrational and uncivilized. Their archetypes are Hitler and Stalin. They include Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden, ISIS and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and recently Recep Erdogan, Nicolas Maduro, Donald Trump and the new president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. They include both the populist right and the leftists who march and shout: like the gilets jaunes, the indignados, and the occupiers of Wall Street.
According to the official story, history in its broad outlines (not unlike the universal history of the philosopher Immanuel Kant) is about the slow but sure progress of freedom and reason. Freedom and reason are always threatened and sometimes they are overwhelmed by unfreedom and unreason. The worst threat of all was the Nazi holocaust. In 1941 the Nazis had overwhelmed almost all of the European continent.
That time Europe (and therefore civilization) was only saved because the Brits held out and the Yanks came to the rescue. But this time it is worse! The Brits and the Yanks have changed sides! Britain has fallen to the Brexiters. The USA has been taken over by its lunatic fringe.
Stalwarts of freedom and reason like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are beleaguered in the homelands of the Enlightenment, under siege from the right and from the left. Around the world, nations that never did accept the Enlightenment, like the Russians and the Chinese, take centre-stage.
Europe is in danger! But why?
I want to question the conventional wisdom of the official story.
There is something wrong with identifying the ideals and the essence of Europe with freedom, reason, human rights, free trade, capitalism properly regulated, great books, the art treasures of The Louvre and other fine museums, Luciano Pavarotti, and the European Union.
What is missing is the heart of what the economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein called the European World System. As a matter of real history, it was that European system that expanded to become the Modern World System. That is why Europe and European civilization can claim to be the origin, the centrepiece, and the implicit ideal of today’s global economy.
And what is the heart of the European system now global? It is production for sale for profit, starting with money and ending with more money, and then doing the same thing over and over again. It is accumulating. That is what the European merchant adventurers, backed by their soldiers and their fleets, taught the rest of the world.
The European system is a system with losers. It always has been a system with losers. Ever since it began it has generated malcontents. It has always been imposed by power and it has always met resistance. It has always been a system that generates its own enemies. It still is.
Europe is a danger to itself. It is a danger to the rest of the world.
As Emmanuel Macron recently confessed to the gilets jaunes, ‘We have failed to create a society of equals.’ But that failure is nothing new. The European system has always been a system where if a poor person gets a job it is because a richer person becomes still richer by hiring him or her.
Macron’s confession was suitable for a left-wing audience. Speaking to a right-wing audience he might have followed the lead of Angela Merkel, who has confessed that the effort to build a multi-cultural civilization in Germany has been a failure. Or he might simply have said, ‘We have failed to establish law and order.’
Any way you look at it, the failures of Europe are nothing new. They have been happening over and over again ever since Europe as we know it began.
When a system consistently produces its own enemies, century after century, is it not obvious that the causes of the threats to its continued existence could not possibly lie entirely in the unreasoning anger, or in the twisted ideologies that pretend to be rational, of its enemies?
Is it not time for the ‘good people’ to accept their share of responsibility for the fact that the ‘bad people’ exist?