From a Spiegel interview with the French philosopher Andre Glucksmann:

Glucksmann: Europe was never a national entity, not even in the Christian Middle Ages. Christianity always remained divided — the Romans, the Greeks and later the Protestants. A European federal state or European confederation is a distant goal that is frozen in the abstraction of the term. I think pursuing it is the wrong goal.

SPIEGEL: Is the European Union chasing after a utopia in both political and historical terms?

Glucksmann: The EU’s founding fathers liked to invoke the Carolingian myth, and an EU award was named after Charlemagne. But, after all, his grandchildren divided up his empire. Europe is a unity in its division or a division in its unity. Whichever way you put it, though, it’s clearly not a community in terms of religion, language or morals.

SPIEGEL: And yet it exists. What does that lead you to conclude?

Glucksmann: The crisis of the European Union is a symptom of its civilization. It doesn’t define itself based on its identity but, rather, on its otherness. A civilization isn’t necessarily based on a common desire to achieve the best but, rather, on excluding and making the evil taboo. In historical terms, the European Union is a defensive reaction to horror.

SPIEGEL: A negatively defined entity that emerged out of the experience of two world wars?

Glucksmann: In the Middle Ages, the faithful prayed and sang in their litanies: “Lord, protect us from pestilence, hunger and war.” This means that community exists not for good but against evil.

More:

SPIEGEL: And it was fulfilled in 1990, after the fall or the Berlin Wall. Did the elimination of the threat and division also lead to the dissolution of internal cohesion? Former French President François Mitterrand and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted the monetary union to become the new cement.

Glucksmann: Which is now, in an irony of history, releasing divisive forces. But the problem is more deep-seated than that. In 1990, the end of history seemed to have arrived and, with it, the end of threats, trials, ideologies and the great struggles and debates. This is called the postmodern age. Merkel and Hollande are swimming in the instantaneousness of postmodernism, in which the “great stories,” with their overarching claim to legitimacy, are abandoned, as the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard said. Today’s European leaders think and act in the rhythm of election schedules and opinion polls.

And:

Glucksmann: … The intellectual distance [between France and Germany] has grown considerably in recent decades. There have always been differences in ways of thinking. Hegel described the Paris of the Enlightenment as an example of the “intellectual animal kingdom” of self-expression. The French argued and cursed; they were fond of differences and polemics. Their discussions shared something in common with journalism and spectacle, but not as much with academic rigor. The Germans worked on major explanatory systems, seeking the realm of knowledge as a replacement for a lack of unity in politics and religion. Today, an intellectual depression is weighing down upon both countries. The intelligentsia as a social class no longer exists in France, and it lacks coherence on both sides (of the German-French border). It has become lost in postmodernism.

SPIEGEL: So those who wish to shirk the big challenges no longer need any important stories anymore, either?

Glucksmann: At least that’s what is postulated in what Lyotard sees as the end of systems and ideologies. But the supposedly non-ideological postmodernism is itself an ideology. I see it as the embodiment of the movement of the outraged — outrage as a moral protest that’s an end in itself. The form is the content. It reminds me of Oskar Matzerath in “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass: I see, I drum and the unbearable world breaks apart.

SPIEGEL: A child’s belief?

Glucksmann: Europe is still a playground of ideas. But thinking is so fragmented, so weighed down by scruples, that it flees from the true test. In this sense, it’s a mirror image of politics.

I finished this interview and thought that the postmodern condition goes a long way toward explaining the malaise of American politics. We have no overarching, compelling story to give weight and impetus to our politics. The Democrats haven’t had one since the New Deal and the Great Society lost their ability to bind and to inspire. The Republican story ended with Iraq and the economic crash of 2007-08, though the Republican Party doesn’t know this yet, and keeps recycling the same cliches. Both stories depend on things that aren’t true, or to be more precise, aren’t felt to be true, not really, not anymore, at least not by most people.

The New Deal narrative worked because it made sense to most people, within their experience … until it no longer did. The neoliberal Reagan narrative — anti-communism, but also pro-market, and pro-bourgeois moral order — worked because it offered a more convincing explanation for why the world is as it is, and how it can work better. But now? What is there? I think the reason partisans of both sides ramp themselves up into such hysteria about the other side is because they find unity in opposing Evil, and, well, there has to be a story that makes the other side Evil. However untrue, the narrative is useful.

But do most people believe this, outside of MSNBC and Fox News fanatics, and screaming-meemies of right-wing talk radio and the left-wing blogosphere?

This is far beyond the yin and yang of party politics. We have lost a civilizational narrative. This is hardly news, of course, but it’s interesting to think about it in terms of why our politics are so dull and phony. There doesn’t seem to be much at stake. In truth, there’s a great deal at stake, but that is not widely understood, and besides — this is the crucial point — we cannot agree on what the stakes are, much less how to meet the challenges of our time.

The Self is something we can all agree on, which is why therapeutic consumerism is the dominant ideology of our time and place. But this won’t last, because it’s built on the presumption that there are no limits that cannot be overcome, because they’re built into the fabric of things.

Besides, people forget. I was reading this weekend about France in the 19th century, and it’s amazing to see how easily swayed the people were for war, glory, and adventure. The blessings of peace, prosperity, and creativity that followed the catastrophic defeat by the Prussians in the 1870s gave way a generation later to an eagerness for a cleansing war with Germany.

To be clear, I’m not eager for a Story. After all, Hitler had a compelling story to tell the German people, to explain the calamity that had befallen them, and what needed to be done about it. And besides, it’s a pretty great time, and a pretty great place, to be alive. Philip Rieff, that peerless sociological and psychological analyst of our postmodern civilization, certainly thought so — even as he explained, in “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” why our civilization would fragment, perhaps irretrievably, from this process. It has to do with loss of story.

Rieff — not a religious man, by the way — believed that a culture is defined by what it forbids (Glucksmann, note well, echoes this in his comment that Europeans knew who they were by knowing what, and who, they were not). For a very long time, the West knew itself as Christian — that is, as bound by the precepts of Christianity, as taught by the Roman Catholic church. As we all know, the Reformation broke the unity of Western European culture, and the Enlightenment failed to provide a new bond of unity and common purpose. We have been atomizing for a long time now, and it seems to have reached a terminal phase, at least if you believe Rieff’s theory of culture.

Why? Says Rieff:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.

Rieff wrote this in the mid-1960s. The process he identifies here has gone much further since then. Note that Rieff is not “blaming the Sixties” for this; the process, he understands, began much earlier. Our culture’s crisis, he says, comes from the fact that it has been, at least since the Enlightenment, about refusing the old thou shalt nots in the name of individual liberty.

The ultimate end of that process is to create the culture we now have, one in which neither the Church, nor the Academy, nor the State, nor any of those normative institutions have the power to bind, to inspire, and to guide as they once did.  The idea of sacred order is not something we share any longer. The one thing everyone today believes in now is the Self. As Rieff wrote, the religion of the future will be “spiritual,” but not religious — he foresaw Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — and the politics of the future won’t really be about virtue. Rather:

The wisdom of the next social order, as I imagine it, would not reside in right doctrine, administered by the right men, who must be found, but rather in doctrines amounting to permission for each man to live an experimental life.

As I have said before, I am as deeply implicated in this postmodern dynamic as anybody else. Though it can be resisted, it cannot be escaped, because we are all profoundly aware of the foundational fact of choice. One can’t choose to believe something that isn’t true. This is why religion as “religion” cannot function as religion must. You have to believe at some basic level that the Story is literally true, not just a metaphor. Nobody lives or dies for a metaphor, or denies themselves something that they deeply desire.

Rieff wrote that nobody will much care about politics as long as the government maintains social order and economic abundance. It is clear that those two things depend on each other. What if we lose our wealth? What will happen to social order in the absence of a shared, genuine belief in a Story. Thus Rieff’s point:

The question is no longer as Dostoevski put it: ‘Can civilized men believe?’ Rather: Can unbelieving men be civilized?

[H/T: The Browser, always excellent.]

Advertisement