European identity: From metaphysical essentialism to conventionalism

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Following up my last article on European identity and how direct taxation can produce the necessary power impulse towards the creation of a European public sphere, I shall elaborate on the distinction that needs to be drawn between the traditional types of national identity and the new form of conventional, parallel identity that can be developed within the context of European integration.

For a better perspective, references will be made to history and the various emanations of identity as these have appeared in different epochs, in order to illustrate my point that in our times the metaphysical essentialism of the past is useless and thus a more pragmatic approach has to be taken for the construction of a European identity.

Forms of national identity and historical evolution

Nation state building* is commonly accepted by academics as a modern phenomenon, starting from the 17th century onwards, from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 establishing the concept of state sovereignty, to the French revolution of 1789 which then fertilized other nationalist movements across Europe. The main elements that characterized the first nations are not always the same, though we can identify linguistic, historical, religious and ethnic bonds between the members of the nation. Despite the specificities of each case there are two main classifications to be made between the forms of historical nationalism, in the nation-state building process. Namely civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism.

The former was the kind of nationalism permeating the population of France during the creation of the First Republic, which suggested that a founding set of principles, a social contract, as Jacques Rousseau described it in his magnum opus “Le Contrat Social”, would be the primary bond of the nation and anyone willing to abide by that constitution, would be henceforth considered a French national. Indeed France as a nation encompassed diverse ethnic groups apart from Franks, such as the Burgundians, the Basques and the Catalans, while the people of Normandy and perhaps Bretagne were also thought to be of Germanic origin. As such, French civic nationalism at the late 18th century was mostly based on a convention between people willing to identify their selves as French, in exchange for a presumed better life, within the newly-founded republic, not excluding the cultural and other ties that might have played an important part in the process. This fundamental belief was repeatedly challenged by the occasional rise of monarchs such as Napoleon Bonaparte, yet the essence of this idea was never drawn out of all the consequent French Republics till this day.

The other type of nationalism, that of ethnic nationalism, could be found in Germany, where the collective bond, the national identity, was the extension of ethnic and cultural ties between the people. It emphasized on the kinship of the people, on their common racial origin, their collective memories and their single destiny, suggesting that the distinction between German and non-German, national and non-national, was a product of nature that could not be denied by any means of human action or institution. This became especially evident in the 18th to 19th centuries when the German strand of the Romantic movement gave a clear ethnocentric, ideological perspective to its literary works, contrary to its more poetic counterparts in France and Great Britain. German ethnic nationalism was epitomized by the kingdom of Prussia, a militarist country that eventually consolidated its rule over other German states, to forge the Second Reich, whose legacy would last till the first decades of the 20th century. German nationalism remained ethnocentric up until the end of WWII, when the leaders of the country realized that the demolished post-war Germany, West Germany at the time, would require a new type of identity to stand in the new world and to combat the mentality that brought so much suffering on the country and the world. They eventually adopted the civic approach, which was open to non-Germans, thus heralding the start of a new era in German and consequent European history.

The role of the intelligentsia

In both cases the well educated elites, the intelligentsia, either be artists or philosophers or jurists and statesmen, played a decisive role in projecting a metaphysical image of the notions that dominated the original nationalist movements, namely “the people”, “the fatherland”, “the state”, “the law” and “the nation”. All these concepts were treated in a near-religious way as if they had an essence of their own, as if they existed independently of the actual conditions in the world or from one another. The “fatherland” or “motherland” was the holy place of “our ancestors” and should always be protected from enemies and defilers. The “state” and/or the “law” was the embodiment of divine providence, blessed by “God” (or Nature for the secularists) and granted its power from the “people” – it therefore was legitimized from both the heavenly powers and the earthly ones. The “nation” was an eternal entity, having survived from all the challenges of history and having produced only great and glorious works in the process. Finally the “people” were the spring of all power and sovereignty and were the present form of the nation, thus they were treated as if they were somewhat holy in substance.

Though infinite examples could be forwarded to demonstrate this metaphysical essentialism, one only needs to pay close attention to the discourse of the time, such as the famous dictum of Robespierre before executing Louis XVI when he said “Louis must die so that the fatherland may live”, whereby the “Fatherland” is treated as if it were a person. So if Louis was to live, the “fatherland” would die? And by death of the fatherland do we mean erosion of the soil, pollution of the air and poisoning of the water? In defense of such parlance one could argue that by the word “fatherland” Robespierre was speaking about the people and about justice and democracy, yet such an argument would have to face the multi-task of proving the zero-sum game between one person, Louis XVI and the “people” as a whole, together with all logical ramifications of this phrase. Of course I am not searching for any definite conclusions along these lines, not do I raise this issue to support either side. This is just mentioned to bring the point of metaphysical essentialism into focus.

In a similar fashion we even today come across phrases such as “the nation/fatherland together with the people and the state have a duty to support the family”, as if all these entities were distinct from one another and as if they were independent “entities” in the first place. Indeed anyone willing to pay close attention to political discourse of earlier epochs, or even of some contemporaries will realize how absurd many statements were/are.

The intelligentsia of each country objectified and deified these notions, through its literary works, giving to them a truly compelling image that eventually permeated the social psyche to stimulate strong sentiments of affection to the nation-state and forge a solid national identity. In parallel, myths and traditions were cultivated, glorifying the deeds of great heroes and kings of the past, which further strengthened the collective memories, feelings and beliefs of the newly-founded nation-states. The idea of a national “character” became a standard, suggesting that nature or the “fatherland” had gifted all people of a given nation certain universal properties of character. Last but not least, the people of the neighboring countries, the “others”, were always depicted as evil forces, sworn to undermine, ravage and destroy the nation at every given opportunity. The intelligentsia of each country played a decisive role in this process of identity building, especially in its initial stages.

After WWII ended and everyone had finally realized how destructive extreme nationalism was, national identities were brought under reconsideration to abandon the anachronistic “we-they” antagonisms and primordial hatreds, in favor of tolerance, cooperation and mutual understanding. The scars of the war, real and mental, individual and collective, provided the fertile ground, allowing for such a transition which understood that there was a better future in a unified rather than deeply divided Europe. In the second half of the 20th century the idea of national identity was not abandoned per se, but was decisively rethought to forever prevent another similar major war in Europe and to be compatible with globalization, international trade and European integration, among others. Nationalism has hitherto lost most of its metaphysical properties, due to this evolution of events.

The lessons to be drawn from history

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that identity is subjective and dynamic, without however ignoring or degrading the importance of cultural, historical, linguistic and other parameters. It is upon this realization that a European identity can be created. Yet it is essential to learn the lessons of history and to comprehend the fundamental distinction between the kind of identity-building we had in previous centuries, and the type of “banal” nationalism we have been witnessing ever since the end of WWII, which undeniably is not impeding European integration (though European incrementalist decision-making is part of conflicting national agendas, which nonetheless is not the same).

Today we, as societies, are mature enough to no longer have to invent or discover some common “European culture” upon which we shall establish a “European nation”. We no longer need any ruling elite seeking to deify and objectify “holy Europe”, “our fatherland”. Nor do we have to cultivate the existence of sinister outside forces whose presence poses a potent threat to our achievements, just as our ancestors used to think when speaking of their neighboring countries. Such anachronistic beliefs if they exist and even though they might be well-motivated in the case of a European identity, are based on a tissue of unexamined historical facts, deep theoretical misunderstandings and egregious fallacies and must therefore be abandoned.

All we need is to realize that we can identify ourselves as Europeans along conventional lines, in the sense of agreeing on a given set of principles, which will define the fundamental values of being European, such as democracy, individual liberty, human rights, equality, tolerance, solidarity and so on so forth. This can be done by free people, fully conscious that they agree upon a contract, for the sake of establishing a political union that can make their life better. I consider this a conventional identity, one that does not contradict nor override the existing national identities. Such an approach will allow us to circumvent the theoretical and practical impediments towards the formation of a European identity and genuine political integration.

Notwithstanding the temporary difficulties of the economic crisis and the occasional protectionist, quasi-nationalist rhetoric, there is infinite potential for a conventional European identity. What we need to do perhaps, is be more conscious about it and become more realistic in our discussions in case we are not, instead of trying to think along the lines of “European nationalism”, for that is, in my view, foolishness of the highest degree.

If we are to speak of a European identity we need to abandon metaphysical essentialism in favor of conventionalism. Once we agree upon this theoretical issue of cardinal importance we can proceed unencumbered into constructing a European identity and we can contemplate on other equally important subjects.

*to avoid any misunderstandings, France and Germany are only used as examples. Similar conditions apply to most, if not all European nations. The use of these two countries is a mere matter of conveniency and should not imply anything.