Of state and superstate: a reply to Craig Willy on European ideology

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Craig Willy is a fellow blogger, essayist and friend. He recently published an article bearing the titular question In Euro We Trust: Are European institutions the secular descendants of the medieval Church?. I intended to provide my opinion on the subject by commenting on his blog, only to quickly realise that propounding my argument would require more space than what is generally given to a “long” comment. Hence I hereby publish my reply to Craig’s article, addressing each of the main themes he discusses in a total of four sections, namely: (1) Cultural affinity of Europeans, (2) Ideology and mystique, (3) Trust as a fundamental category of economics, and (4) A superstate is still a state.

1. Cultural affinity of Europeans

The first section of Craig’s article outlines how the legacy of Latin Christendom permeates the modern conception of the “European” identity:

Whether Europeans officially recognize it or not, it seems the Church more than anything else is what gave this portion of the Earth a certain cultural unity despite its national and political diversity, with a marked border with the Arabo-Muslim World and to a lesser extent with the Orthodox World. On the one side, the Bible, the Latin language and exogamous monogamy, on the other, the Quran, the Arabic language and polygamous endogamy. So perhaps, without being too Huntingtonian, it’s not surprising that today still the borders of “Europe” are de facto those between Christianity and Islam (and it doesn’t look like this is going to change).

Drawing parallels between different historical-cultural-political contexts always is an intriguing exercise, both with respect to the patterns it may reveal and to the differences it may shed light to. The preponderance of Christianity on the European continent traces its roots back to the days of the late Roman Empire, when Constanine the Great became the first emperor to espouse Christianity (a dogma which was then forged over a series of Seven Ecumenical Synods). In the 6th century CE Justinian the Great, following in the footsteps of Theodosius the Great decidedly ended the last remnants of the classical era, by shutting down the Academy of Athens, which was established by Plato himself.

Christianity’s dominance can be characterised by a struggle against the credences it replaced or assimilated. At that time, perhaps even to this very day, many pagan elements persisted and informed both political and religious life and organisation, in spite of their persecution, prohibition and marginalisation. Many rites or festivities now central to Christian practice are indeed adaptations of older traditions — changes occurred in appearances and names, but the core often remained in tact. The prevailing magma of significations in any epoch will most likely have an impact on any new tendency, creed or political organisation that arises endogenously. Partial resemblance of form between Christianity and the pagan traditions would not in itself be enough to establish anything beyond the fact, such as e.g. Christianity being falsely seen as a “pagan” variant.

That Christianity may still inform the social imaginary in Europe, does not suggest that such a state of affairs occurs by necessity, _and hence applies _universally. If the predispositions of the pagan world once ramified to various corners of daily life during the early Christian epoch, some enduring even to this day, and if any divisions or marked cultural borders could be transcended, then it may be that the possible overlap between the “borders” of Europe with that of Medieval Christendom is a matter of contingency _and, therefore, is susceptible to change. Does such a possible overlap make European institutions the descendants of  the medieval Church? That can depend on what outlook one wishes to assess, for if we are to think of the current era as a _transition from the vaunted traditions of the past into a genuinely new epoch that arguably perhaps continues what was set in motion with the Enlightenment, then it could be claimed that European institutions are not descendants of the medieval Church, even though they may indeed partake of the social imaginary that still is prevalent across the continent.

Then again, are indeed the borders of “Europe” the same as those of Christianity? And if so, of which Europe? Is the EU, a transient political entity, founded on the basis of certain international treaties not so long ago, equivalent to the cultural-historical magnitude that the term “Europe” signifies? If it is, then the borders between Europe and Christendom do not overlap. If it is not, then are we to acknowledge as European the countries that participate in the Council of Europe? That would include, among others, Russia, the Caucasian countries and Turkey. Turkey by the way is a member of NATO that would presumably fight for the security of Europe should there be a conflict in this region, while quite a few of the Turkish people wish that their country gains accession to the EU. Is Cyprus European? And if so, is it because of its close historical ties with “the West”, courtesy of Frankish, Venician and British colonisation or of a certain shared culture with Greece? And if it is European, given that it also is an EU Member State, what does that make of Asia Minor (Turkey)? Is that region not directly related to “Europe” from the classical era hitherto? Furthermore, and to be a bit more provocative, if Christianity is a uniting thread of all that is European, is not Judaism also central in what goes by the name “Europe”, given both the common grounds of these two Abrahamic religions and the major contributions to European culture made by Jews throughout the ages? All this without even beginning to enumerate the contributions of Arab-Muslim-Persian culture to “Europe”. Again, which Europe and why that particular one?

The gist of the argument is two-fold: (i) there is a degree of vagueness or arbitrariness in the claim that the borders of Europe coincide with those of Christianity and, (ii) it perceives of borders as superordinate to politics or political orientations. The error of the second assumption becomes clear when, apart from fathoming the historical evolution in the perception of the political-cultural terminus, one considers what would be the force of that argument if, say, an Arab or Islamic country were to join the EU. Would that not render it obsolete by proving that any overlap of said borders is a matter of contingency not necessity?

2. Ideology and mystique

The second theme Craig considers is that of Europeanism and of how it resembles a religious creed:

Whether Europeanists explicitly recognize Christian heritage or not, many people have noted the quasi-religious quality of a great deal of Europeanism. The European federalist “bears the cross” of tirelessly calling for unity in relative anonymity and irrelevance. The Bundesbank, and its ECB descendant, zealously preach the neo-Lutheran gospel of deficit reduction and hard money, even (especially?) if it hurts. More generally, the Europeanist’s principle seems to be to “have faith” that, one way or another, things will work out if you just wait long enough and believe.

Christianity is not a monolithic set of ideas or values. As a matter of fact, it is so over-encompassing and its interpretations or applications so diverse, that many ideologies or “-isms” _can be considered as springing from it. The sociologist Max Weber did try to draw parallels between capitalism and the Protestant tradition, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. _Murray N. Rothbard, one of the most prolific anarcho-capitalists of the 20th century and a fervent exponent of Natural Law, was a committed atheist of Jewish background who strongly subscribed to a normative theory that is “Christian” in many ways, as it was developed by such important Church figures as Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, whom Rothbard bore great respect for. Moreover, we may examine such outspoken a critic of the bourgeois society as Karl Marx, who while polemical to the establishment of his time, did develop several theories that are somewhat “mystical” and ideocentric, such as the core element of heteronomy central to his historical and class determinism or his theory of commodity fetishism, all that while he did clearly lay the foundations for Communism, which can be seen as sharing at least some of the principles/teachings of Jesus Christ. The hard money tradition may contain certain Protestant elements (as general influences were noted above) but the actual economics of it were developed by a range of thinkers many of whom were not even Christians, let alone Lutherans.

The list of cases that can be seen as drawing from Christianity or religion in general can be quite long, though instead of being enumerative at the risk of tiring the reader, I do wish to elaborate on a certain tenet of thought specific to modernity: nationalism. Craig is knowledgeable of French history and culture, so he is of course aware of the historical evolution of statism, of how once supreme authority was centralised in a person — the sovereign, who was none other than the monarch — and of how that shifted to the personification _of the very state that dethroned person once administered. While the state was already starting to be treated as some sort of an exalted “person” that had/has its own supreme “rights”, “interest” and “reason of being” already from the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648), it arguably was the French Revolution (1789) that heralded the start of that new era of political organisation defined by the institution of the nation-state; an institution that created vertical and horizontal (temporal and spatial) _identities between the territory, its inhabitants and its administration. In Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, we read the following:

The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

Without having any intention whatsoever to belittle the importance of the French Revolution, I do find the provisions of that article to be somewhat “mystical”, especially if one were to substitute the term “the nation” for that of “God” (and that is without even considering the Jacobin Club’s cult of the Supreme Being):

The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation God. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation God.

The French Republic was a representative democracy, with all the pros and cons that system has. In that given political framework there arises an antinomy between the necessity of having a majority deciding over the affairs of the state and the aforementioned article. The reason is that a majority is not the totality of what may be considered a “nation”, which raises the following questions:

  1. Are the decisions of the majority illegitimate, given that where there are diverse political views it cannot be claimed consistently that the nation “as a whole” has a specific view on how to exercise its sovereignty?
  2. When an act is carried forward, say a legislation to impose a certain controversial tax, and when that effectively is an exercise of the state’s sovereign authority, is that very act to be considered void because it was the government or ruling majority who implemented it rather than the nation per se or as a whole?
  3. Ontologically, is the nation an entity in itself from where individuals or political bodies can draw authority? And how does that differ from the claim Medieval Kings made of their reign partaking of divinity?

My intention is not to answer such questions, for that is not the point of this publication, but to illustrate how one may identify common threads between political ideologies and religious doctrine even in cases where these two seem to be positioned as antithetical to one another. So, to cut to the nub of Craig’s argument, is Europeanism an otherwise secular recrudescence of Church doctrine or practice? There may be several elements these two share, impelling one to treat them as consubstantial though that would still not be enough to brand only Europeanism as an heir of a religious tradition. That would require the operation of an otherwise arbitrary standard that would omit any other ideology that may also draw from Christianity, so as to produce the selective conclusion that Europeanism in particular is the harbinger of a new type of mysticism. Such method would have to be considered inadequate and therefore erroneous, for it would already be assuming the categories it would seek to vindicate, applying double standards in the process.

Does that mean that Europeanism, however defined, is freed from any presumptions whatsoever and that it is a pure form of science? That I believe would also be a far-fetched claim, since all political views, in so far as they are political rather than scientific, mathematical or philosophical, do indeed contain an element of arbitrariness or contempt and smugness towards the views that are inimical to them. In essence, free and unencumbered thought culminates in the thinker being able to examine the very tenets of their own thought. Do political leaders ever really question the superiority of their worldview as contrasted to other views of the same sort? Supranationalists, such as those who tend to weave obscurantist apologias about certain (mal-)practices in European politics, can be as dogmatic in their views as someone who would argue against European integration and in favour of another state of political affairs. What is at stake here, is the suggestion that dogmatism is not intrinsic to a specific ideology and that opposing positions on political outlooks can be placed under a common denominator in as far as their underlying intolerance to the other is concerned.

Couched in those terms, it is indeed prudent to conduct politics on the basis of realism, of assessing the advantages and disadvantages of all possible outcomes and of opting for the most optimal among them. That indeed requires an open mind and a compromising spirit. However, we ought to recognise that pure reason or science proper cannot be reconsiled with political bargains that are almost always underpinned by context-specific stratagems, normative predispositions and particularised aspirations that lack a holistic understanding of things. Wherever or whenever an immense penumbra of mysticism surrounds the argument for or against Europe (or any other topic), it is up to the open-minded to criticise and to expose such prejudices, while remaining vigilant to the fact that no given political programme or part thereof is immune to such tendencies. Singling one for critique, while neglecting any other, is an imprecise method of statement.

3. Trust as a fundamental category of economics

Craig also presents some of his thoughts on the conduct and rhetoric of the European Central Bank. He notes:

The powerful ECB President Mario Draghi told us recently: “I trust that, if we remain resolute, great things for the euro area and its citizens can become possible.” Trust. His colleague Benoît Cœuré used the same word when trying reassure to investors via Bloomberg News (i.e. the traders’ media): “We do believe in the recovery. We do trust the recovery.”

The use of the term “trust” does not, in itself, transform monetary policy into some sort of mystique. The very conduct of economic activity is predicated on the subjectivity of evaluation, as has long been accepted by economists, especially following the works of the great Marginalist thinkers of the late 19th century, William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger and Léon Walras. No thing has economic value in itself. Value is extrinsic to the thing. There are two aspects to such an evaluation, (i) the personal, (ii) the inter-personal.

With regard to the former, an agent found in the middle of a desert may attach greater value to water than to diamonds; though should that very same person be found in a situation where their thirst is satiated, diamonds would appear to be of greater value relative to water. A book may require weeks, months or years to be written yet it may happen that no other person bar the author finds its economic value to be commensurate with the hours of labour spent for its production. That again would be an indication of value being an extrinsic economic property. For a third example, consider the price variations of gold. In rough terms, the price of an ounce of gold in 2005 was circa 500 USD, while it skyrocketed to circa 1,400 USD by 2010. This radical change in price did not reflect a corresponding shift in the underlying mechanics of gold, relating to its quantity or natural properties. What these price variations indicate, is a drastic change in the expectations/evaluations, in the faith investors put in the alternatives to gold (as far as finance goes).

Then, concerning the inter-subjectivity of value, the only means of achieving a degree of constancy in evaluations is by relying on trust and on the legal instruments that pamper and reinforce it. An investor wishes to buy a promise of future payment issued by a state on an ordinary piece paper — also known as a government bond — on the basis of an expectation _that said state will be able to raise taxes/revenues to comply with the promise it made. I am willing to pay the web host for X number of years to keep this website up and running because, in essence, I _believe _that they will remain in business and indeed deliver the service they agreed to. The use of fiat money, such as the Euro and all the national currencies it substituted, is also possible thanks to _trust. A 50 EUR note is indeed worth as much as its face value _only because there are several people out there who are willing to accept it as such in their transactions. Should, for whatever reason, people lose their _faith _in that same 50 EUR note, it would be seen as nothing more than a piece of economically worthless paper, or its value would decrease substantially as hyperinflation would creep in. Indeed the sole most important asset of a modern central bank, is its _credibility to deliver on its mandate (think of how the German Mark plummeted in the early 1920‘s when the authorities of the Weimar Republic that dealt with money lost their credibility).

The use of the word “trust” by Draghi or Cœuré does not make them suspect, given the context in which the economy operates. Now, whether economic value can be of a different sort or whether beliefs, aka economic evaluations, are well-founded or not, is another discussion altogether.

4. A superstate is still a state

The fourth and last of the themes identified in Craig’s article that I wish to discuss is encapsulated thus:

The relationship between the largely passive, unthoughtful, religious Europeanism of a fraction of the population and actual European institutions and policymaking is somewhat tenuous. Basically, that part of the population will automatically accept whatever the various ministers, diplomats, bureaucrats and judges who are “constructing Europe” come up with. And it will be very hostile to any “rollback” in their handiwork. They tend to be remarkably uncritical of the consequences of the elitist aspects of this integration: being done largely by and for tiny elites, European integration has tended to reinforce the power of unelected government officials and of mobile corporate actors (especially banks), while reducing the power of elected governments and citizens.

What I think is missing from Craig’s article is the consistent application of his own approach to any political position that is not Europeanist. One reading Craig’s article may assume that the introduction of Europeanism to the theatre of European/international politics provided the impetus that led to the creation of a set of suboptimal outcomes which would have otherwise not be engendered.

Granted there is elitism and all other evils at European level, are those germane to Europeanism or did they also exist prior to — or independent from — it? Were/are there no plutocracies, elites, oligarchs, conniving entrepreneurs etc. at national level who enjoy excessive privileges relative to the rest of the population or who seek to abuse the system with impunity? Were/are not national governments susceptible to corruption or captivity by corporate interests and was/is there no collusion between nation-states and private economic actors outside the context of Europeanism? Did people as a whole truly exercise effective control over their nation-states prior to the emergence of Europeanism, and if so, how come they did not prevent the rise of it if they did see it as an evil promoted by a certain fraction of mystics or, at least, as an idea that would undermine their otherwise amiable political order?

My contention is that either we will have to uphold the view that these and other evils one may think of are connatural predicates of Europeanism and will cease to exist if Europeanism is swiped into the dustbin of history, or we will have to acknowledge that the European level of authority, in so far as it resembles the states it aspires to overcome or usurp, shares in the same deficiencies as all states hitherto. By attributing all problems to a form of state we may be remaining oblivious to the fact, ay, the very possibility of other forms of state also featuring the same defects. Should that be the case, a critical mind would have to wonder whether the source of the problem is not a given manifestation of the state, but the state as such. That would then suggest that any differences are a matter of degree, not underlying mechanics.

Concluding remarks

All of the above granted, I do appreciate Craig’s critical attitude, especially when thinking of the cheerleaders of the otherwise meaningless slogan of “More Europe”. The last of his paragraphs I wish to present as a conclusion to this article, is this:

[R]eligious Europeanism sees all of these aspects uncritically and unconditionally defends them en bloc as necessary parts of a mystical gateway towards salvation: “irreversible” (a term frequently used, but what in human affairs is “irreversible”?) unity and peace in Europe, Superpowerhood. The religious Europeanist will have an Olympian disregard for the specifics of actual EU institutions and policies, and he will be hatefully vague about the final “federal” form which, it is assumed, will solve all problems in Europe. Dispassionate analysis and discussion of the specific pros and cons of European integration becomes impossible.

Indeed nothing is irreversible in politics, litanies to the contrary notwithstanding. Though what I do want to draw from that last quote, in conjunction with all the aforementioned, is that any political position may be criticised inasmuch as it is underpinned by mystical presumptions and in proportion to them. To that end, people of science and reason who can think for themselves, such as Craig, will have a lot of work to do, for the ideology of Europeanists, however defined, is but one among many and it was not introduced against the backdrop of dogma-free political orientations.

Let us then be reminded of the ultimate task of science, to prove all that is susceptible to proof, rather than attempting to expose the groundlessness of an ideology by juxtaposing it to another ideology; and may we remain committed to our incessant struggle for emancipation from presumption, if that is what we indeed want to achieve.

UPDATE April 13 at 09:31 CET: If you are interested in following the discussion, please make sure you check the comments section below Craig’s article.