Monday, November 24, 2003

Nationality and European Identity

For a few months now, I've been wanting to write an essay on the future of Europe as a "nation"--whether it has such a future, whether anyone (European or otherwise) actually desires such a future, what kind of relationship such a future may or may not have to the current European Union or the proposed European constitution, and so forth. Maybe the reason I haven't written it yet is because my thoughts on the subject are too broad; they touch on too many matters pertaining to political theory, history, and world politics to cast much light on any of them in particular. The closest I've come to finding a hook to hang my reflections on is, first, Juergen Habermas's provocative and perplexing call last summer for the formation of common European identity (recently published in the journal Constellations; the only English translation I'm aware of on the internet--and it isn't the official one--is here), and second, the ongoing and fascinating debate over whether or not proposed European constitution should include some reference to God. What do these two have to do with each other, or with the future (or lack thereof) of national or supranational or postnational identity in Europe? Quite a bit actually, considering that Habermas includes "secularism" in his list of the fundamental building blocks of European society. But even to wrestle with all that is to cast my net too widely, so let me try to narrow things further, to the specific cause of this post: a wonderful, touching post by Tobias Schwarz from the group blog A Fistful of Euros. Tobias, quoting Goethe's powerful lines on the necessarily priority of feeling to any understanding, tries to articulate what it is to "feel European" today. He writes about

"an email conversation I had with an American friend in early 2002. Much like many of his countrymen and especially his colleagues within the Washington Beltway, he never really understood what happened in Western Europe after 1945....Maybe the idea of a nascent European identity based on cherishing diversity--not a common outsider--is impossible to explain--'Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain.' Those who do feel will recognize it, even when it [is] disguise[d] as a 3-hour-long poetry reading in fifteen different languages that even the publicly subsidized elite tv-station 3sat decided to hide entirely from the public by broadcasting it from 1-4 on a Friday night....Yes, sometimes this [identity] means hard work. Sometimes it means listening to poetry in languages no one in the audience will understand. But sometimes, it just comes naturally."

The trouble with Tobias's American friend, according to Tobias, is that he is "still intellectually locked up in the rationality myth of zero-sum strategic competition": that is, the territorial/cultural boundary-struggles of sovereign states. To cherish diversity in contemporary Europe, on the other hand, is in Tobias's view to liberated from such competition; that was the lesson of WWII. That's a powerful lesson, to be sure, and very possibly one very much worth learning. However, I wonder to what extent whether what follows such a lesson really is an "identity" at all. You don't have to be some kind of Robert Kagan-Samuel Huntington-type realist to acknowledge that the whole original point of identity, long before it become an opportunity for subjective expression and recognition, was political: that is, it was about locating where was (and who was, and what was) the polis. Where is this city, and where is that one, and which one am I in now? In that sense, European identity can't help but be, along with all the other important cultural markers (poetry, film, travel, education, etc.) which Tobias notes, also a matter of identifying a European location, a collective European space, a linguistically and/or historically and/or culturally connected commonality. This is a point made pretty strongly, I think, by Habermas in not only his rallying cry for European unity, but also in other essays he has written about Europe over the last several years.

But there is a problem with this space--it is not clear how it is to be constructed, or even if any actual European wants to do the constructing. For that will mean taking the raw materials one has on hand, as it were, and making building out of them some new institutional form for Europe. Habermas and others have tended to see the EU as the near-perfect embodiment of this construction, for all the best reasons: it is (supposedly) a post-national organization, evolving in accordance with broad universals rather than particular interests, removed from history and thus old allegiances. And yet, in the comments to Tobias's post, Scott Martens calls this organization (though perhaps he was quoting someone else) a "monstrosity"--a sentiment widely shared, if polls are to be trusted, by many Europeans (particularly those outside of the French-Benelux-German core). If the EU (and the whole matter of "constitutions, foreign policy, norms, [and] bureaucrats," as Scott puts it) really does have nothing to do with "feeling European"--if being European is not only "postnational," but even "postpolitical," or at least aspires to be--then the identity which Tobias touchingly invokes seems to me one of three possible things. Either it is 1) something utterly new in the whole history of identity; 2) bound to fail, or at least never develop beyond the sort of sentimental fraternity which dormmates always feel when they spend an enjoyable afternoon watching a football game together; 3) merely a way-station on the route towards a truly cosmopolitan world-state. Habermas is, I think, willing to acknowledge the third option; that what he calls "the European nation-state" is really what he (like all good Kantians) rationally believes ought eventually to be the proper postnational form of sovereignty for humanity as a whole. Certainly not a bad goal, but not exactly the same as building a common consciousness out of Europe's historical diversity either.

What do I think of all this? I think 1) is unlikely: perhaps, between modern technology and contemporary secularism, the very ontology of identity really has been changed in the West, and "cherishing diversity" need not any longer involve any kind of political perception of the world whatsoever--but given that traditional nationalist conceptions continue to break out throughout even Habermas's contemporary Europe, I doubt it. I find 3) philosophically defensible, though I suspect it is neither practicable nor wise. That leaves 2). So I'm a Euroskeptic, then? To a degree--but I'm not sure that simply dismissing Tobias's very real experiences as a contemporary European is possible either. The only remaining alternative is to bring politics back into it, and suggest that, whether or not anyone cares to admit it, what is going on in Europe via the EU is "nation-building." (Actually, Charles Taylor has at least recognized this and named it properly; as he very simply put it, sovereign regimes require a political identity if they are to have democratic legitimacy, and hence the future of Europe "depends on [what kind of] shared European identity can be forged out of the 25 nations that will soon make up the European Union.") At first glance, any talk about a truly "European nation" or a "European nationality"--with a more or less united culture, an embedded way of life, a common European sittlichkeit to use Hegel's terms--presumably runs counter to most everything Habermas has wanted to accomplish. He has, after all, described his goal as creating a kind of republicanism--or more generally, a system of citizenship--that can "stand on it's own feet"; i.e., without the supporting boundaries of communal or cultural identity. Habermas is justly famous for denigrating actually existing politics--i.e., with nationalist or volkisch overtones--in favor of a cosmopolitan Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism). In other words, he seems to have little interest in the "love of one's own," but only concern for abstract Kantian, republican principles.

All true--and I've been more than clear on the political character (and necessity) of acknowledging the love one has (or should have) for one's own. But to leave the criticism at that point misses what conceptually seems to be work in all these various types of state and/or civic nationalisms or patriotisms. For instance, what happens when, on the ground, in people's actually lived lives, a certain "political-ethical will" (as Habermas puts it) regarding, say, some "cosmopolitan" law, truly replaces an understanding and devotion to local laws? It's not like this can never happen: between the memory of the struggles of the Revolutionary War, the fear of a repeat of Shay's Rebellion, the arguments of the Federalists, dozens of other factors, the American will as of 1787 came to be constructed around a "federal" (national) state, rather than around thirteen separate, historically distinct sovereignties. (Obviously the process was much more complicated and extended than that, but that such a transferal of attachment took place is indisputable.) Trudeau's effort to reconstruct Canadian attachments through a repatriated constitution and official bilingualism was similar--far from an overwhelming success, to be sure, but nonetheless, his (and other's) acts of political/civic "will" changed Canada (for better or worse) into something which was hardly there 30 years ago.

It's been commonplace in the literature on nationalism and national attachments lately to criticize theorists like Will Kymlicka and others by claiming, contrary to their position, that one cannot willfully "choose," for personal or political (presumably liberal) reasons, to embrace or construct a particular civic nationalism (which is essentially what Habermas is talking about here, whether he would admit it or not): there will always be a cultural/ethnic element to identity as well. I fully agree with that criticism. But as I've also come to believe that this must run both ways: there also can be no cultural/ethnic identity which doesn't get "negotiated" in a political/civic arena. (Bernard Yack has made this point in several important articles.) Does this mean that Habermas's preferred Kantian principles could potentially become, through the civic development of an economically connected Europe, a new kind of sittlichkeit--could they become "ethnic," "embedded" in a new kind of distinctly European life? Personally, I still have my doubts--primarily because (and here my commitment to Johann Gottfried Herder is most apparent), whatever else one might patriotically will, it seems to me that the specificity of language will remain an enormous obstacle and constraint on the human political imagination. (The thirteen colonies all spoke English, after all. And the Canadian example can be read both positively and negatively...) And yet...I don't think we've ever seen anything like Europe today before in the history of the world. As I mentioned above, the levels of technology, the levels of secularity, the ease of association (even the levels of language-sharing), are, arguably, completely unprecedented. And so Tobias's talk fascinates me--there's something happening in Europe today, something clearly "national" (and those who hold to an anti-political vision of Europe will, I fear, only misunderstand and possibly warp that process), but something which goes beyond it as well. I'm not saying I think Habermas is right; all I'm saying is that I think it's useful to look where he's looking. History isn't finished with the nation yet, not by a long shot.