During the recent GOP debate in Florida, the television audience was treated to such awe-inspiring moments as Newt Gingrich’s promise to “pray for guidance and stop the war against Christianity that is being waged by the “secular elite,” and Rick Santorum’s solemn declaration that he never “bought into the global warming hoax.” Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are muttering to themselves, extremely puzzled by the course of history. While the – previously discussed – government of Viktor Orban attempts to disassemble the democratic institutions of the third Hungarian Republic, Santorum waltzes on stage and proclaims that rights come from God, not government. Holy shit indeed.
While vibrant modern democracies have considerable room for a variety of social and political conservatism in public debate, the current wave of conservatism that has spread throughout the West is nothing short of regressive in its political ambitions. In terms of political ideas, the GOP debates have been nearly bereft of interesting or original thoughts (that is, with the exception of Ron Paul, whose failure to do better in the face of such poor opposition only brings up uncomfortable questions about American democracy). Meanwhile, the Canadian government – once paraded as a leader in climate change and transparency – suppresses its media and threatens NGOs over tar sands criticism, pulling out of the Kyoto pact while denying the connection to its lucrative yet environmentally harmful extraction process. Difficult economic times have seen the abdication of political principles before, but the real trouble is that we may not be quite sure what those political principles are anymore. Globalization and the free market have teamed up in the right wing to cloak themselves in the guise of unqualified positives, and conservatives worldwide have presented economic efficiency as the only reasonable form of governance in the “free world.” This is what allows mind-bogglingly prominent figures like Santorum to question fundamental scientific and political convictions like global warming and secular government. Three hundred years ago Franklin and Jefferson would have laughed him out of town.
While not wishing to lump Enlightenment ideas into a convenient category, or deny the important influence of counter-Enlightenment thought, it must be said the political values of our global world order, and certainly those of Western nations have been formed in accordance with Enlightenment ideals, namely those of rational political organization, secular government, tolerance, and an internationalism, or cosmopolitan sense of cooperation. Will Hutton, in a recent op-ed for the Guardian, comments on a new conservatism that departs from this tradition as embodied by Messrs Santorum and Orban:
“The dynamic element on the political right across the west is giving up on the Enlightenment. No longer does it want to embrace tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society.”
While I find Hutton’s criticism a little heavy handed in that it brands all parties on the right with broad strokes of anti-Enlightenment while treating the Enlightenment itself somewhat monolithically, he expresses a central concern of mine in a very short article: political regression is very possible, especially at a time like this. The tendency to regionalism, regressive political ideas, and extreme conservatism becomes heightened in times of crisis, and is responsible for the increased inability of multilateral bodies to find solutions to global problems. It is no coincidence that Europe has become a bad word in the US elections. The EU’s financial struggles have made them a scapegoat for the welfare state, and even worse, multilateralism. Both Obama’s attempts at instituting a functioning health care system, and his desire to work on multilateral solutions to international affairs have inspired the GOP candidates to accuse him of trying to “turn the United States into Europe.” When did the West become so fractured that the word Europe has become an insult in American elections? And how are the major arbiters of international relations to maintain a united stance on global issues while so divided? Moving forward, I will continue to discuss the threat to Enlightenment ideals, and the dangers of political tribalism in the West. It is my feeling that the continuing crisis exacerbates these problematic political phenomena, and that a renewed commitment to progressive political values can come from a reflection on Western political and intellectual history. Hutton illustrates this feeling nicely:
“On issues big and small, we need to get better and cleverer at understanding our Enlightenment legacy and turning it into policies and institutions whose value is obvious to all. The Enlightenment is, with all its imperfections, what drove the rise of the west and will continue to do so if allowed. There is no long-run happiness nor well-being in organising our economies and societies around blood, ethnicity, blind faith and the tribe. The Enlightenment is under siege around the world. It is time to rally to its defence.”
“The EU is not a doormat to wipe your feet on, but it is a common house that we have built together Mr. Orbán.” – Daniel Cohn-Bendit (my translation)
Last week’s article made reference to Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary as an example of a regionalism (or tribalism) that arises in times of crisis. This week I promised a discussion of that phenomena as linked to the loss of Enlightenment ideals. This post and the next will engage with that discussion, but I had to include another little note on Viktor Orbán. Below are two videos of the same speech by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the European Parliament. The first is in the original French, and the second includes English simultaneous interpretation. Unfortunately, the interpreter leaves much to be desired in the passionate pontification department, so whether you have any French or not, I suggest you have a look at some of the original (if only to gauge the spirit of the delivery). Essentially, Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens–European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, equates Mr. Orbán’s reforms with totalitarian politics, and urges the EU to step in to moderate what he views as a anti-intellectual, anti-semitic, and dangerously nationalistic regime. As you’ll see, the speech is very well received.
The parliamentary row has uncovered more divisions within the EU as the continued desperation of the European financial crisis would benefit from some increased solidarity among member nations. So yeah, bad timing, but not entirely coincidental. Orbán has no doubt sought to capitalize on the negative EU sentiment in Hungary to consolidate his party’s grip on the country’s media, legislature and judiciary. This type of reactionary crisis-politics in the EU is not limited to Orbán but is shared across many Eurosceptic groups. As cracks appear in the unity of the European project, some suggest that the crisis is evidence of the EU’s inability to function as a unifying force.
While austerity measures are ushered in across Europe in awkwardly grandiose parliament buildings, Eurosceptics the world over pat each other on the back, rejoicing at the perceived failure of the EU’s supranational polity. Inevitably, the same tired discussion of Europe’s meaning, limits, and commonalities gets dragged to the fore, kicking and screaming.
While Orbán tries to associate the “dictates of Brussels” with the commands of an authoritarian empire (memories of Soviet rule still fresh among Hungarians), others assert the pre-eminence of the nation-state in the face of an “unnatural” political grouping. A recent Foreign Policy article entitled “The Myth of Europe” kicks sand in the face of an anemic EU as it lies mired in its troubling financial issues. The article’s main thrust suggests that the EU’s “most profound crisis” is one related to identity, and that a lack of unity is the true thorn in the side of this novel political project. In other words, that radically different national views prevent a united Europe, and thus, doom the EU.
Here we have the traditional notion of the nation being applied to what should properly be understood as “postnational.” The EU was established as a means to off-set regional divisions on a continent ravaged by national hostilities, have 60 years of peace damaged our memories? Does the idea for a continent of formerly antagonistic nations to become united through political and economic links become less relevant and powerful with the YES result in yesterday’s Croatian accession vote?
Again, I am alluding to my own wariness of those that would seek to shrink back into more familiar parameters during difficult times. Call me an idealist, but I do think of the EU – and postnational politics in general – as a noble project of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant associated the establishment of political peace with “cosmopolitanism,” or an increased connectivity of nations. If Europe is to wield significant international influence in the future, it can do no better than by continuing to forge unity and cooperation among potential antagonists. In brief and somewhat crude terms, this is the connection between the EU and the Enlightenment that I would like to establish. My next post will go into more detail on this subject, expanding on my belief that some anti-EU sentiment is a symptom of forgotten – or ignored – Enlightenment ideals (another crisis in a crisis). If the EU can truly be described as a “common house” that the members have “built together,” then it should be celebrated as such – current financial issues aside. The continued international influence of Europe, and the West in general, hangs very much in the balance.
This week I’d like to introduce a topic that will be a re-occurring concern in my next few posts. In keeping with my original theme of “Crisis upon Crisis,” I will be discussing the manifestations and consequences of a political tribalism that arises out of a desire for self-protection and isolation in uncertain times.
One of the truly wonderful aspects of our globalized capitalist system (present pre-“occupations” with its very real perils aside), is the way that it connects us – especially in times of prosperity. When business is booming, political boundaries blur, linguistic and religious differences appear less significant, and the world is smaller. However, when the global economy suffers, our species has a remarkable tendency to seek comfort in the familiar, local, and – most disturbingly – tribal. Many of the great political projects of the 20th Century occurred in the wake of the Second World War, and were designed to curb the power of the nation-state as arbiter of international affairs. The UN and the EU can both be placed in this category, along with many other intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations. Today, there is evidence of a reversion to the national that is taking place as a result of crisis-related unrest.
Europe, though not alone, is a good example. While a new conservatism grips European governments with bleak economic prospects, populist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán threaten to destabilize the political grounds on which the EU was formed. While Orbán’s government threatens to dissolve many of his country’s democratic institutions, his offering of Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s offer of citizenship to German-Czechoslovakians before WWII. Orbán’s contempt for democracy is compounded by his nationalistic rhetoric, he was quoted as saying: “the republic is merely a cloak for the nation” in 2006. It has been quite a while since Europe last saw a head of state make such openly nationalist statements in reference to a nation as a particular ethnic or cultural community. Sixty years after the Treaty of Paris came into force, could Europe descend into a divisive new tribalism?
The problem is not Europe’s alone, but can be seen as a worldwide wave of conservative politics capitalizes on fear and insecurity. A month ago, the Canadian government announced it was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, citing the “economic situation” as the chief factor. As this crisis spreads and deepens, will opportunities for international cooperation be sacrificed to national interests in the name of fiscal conservatism? Will the great progress made in international diplomacy be squandered by inward-looking government? These are some of the questions I ask myself when reflecting on these concerns.
In a recent op-ed piece, Will Hutton makes reference to the Orbán government in the context of a very interesting discussion about what he sees as the abandonment of Enlightenment ideals. Next week I’ll be responding to that article by making a case for the EU as an Enlightenment project, and delving further into the dangerous rise of political tribalism that I have introduced in this article.