This is how the eminent British historian Norman Davies imagines future history textbooks describing the decline and fall of Europe that is unfolding before our eyes.  I suspect Davies is mistaken about the particulars: No Committee of European Salvation will form to inter the European Union, nor is anything else so dramatic likely to take place. I suspect he is right, however, to insist that yet another “world of yesterday” has disappeared even before we managed to detect any serious fading. When man-made worlds of political and cultural artifice disappear, they do it fast. And indeed, the European Union as we knew it just a year or two ago has vanished. Elites have lost their way even as publics have lost their patience. The official EU elite mantra, that European citizens will save the Union, is so desperate a plaint that, upon hearing it, a few privileged, cosmopolitan Europeans actually imagine their leaders capable of replicating—fully and successfully this time—something on the order of Alexander Hamilton’s federalization of America’s post-Revolutionary War debt as a way to midwife a successful pan-European polity.  But Alexander Hamilton cannot save the eurozone, and there are, in any event, very few European citizens. The actual citizens of individual European countries are far more likely to destroy what is left of “Europe” given half a chance, whether at the polls or, possibly, in the streets. The current crisis has painfully demonstrated that, despite all the solidarity rhetoric we have heard for years, European publics’ readiness to share burdens does not readily extend beyond national borders.
Let us state the matter directly: The real crisis in Europe is not a financial/economic one, but a much deeper social/political crisis, of which the financial/economic dimension is just a symptom. That deeper crisis has formed not just because there is a democracy deficit between the center and the parts of the European Union, or because current European leaders are less devoted to genuine federal union than their predecessors. It has formed because of a cumulatively dramatic transformation of the very character of Europe’s liberal democratic regimes. The European Union cannot be saved by its citizens because there is no European demos, but neither can it survive much longer as an elite project because the crisis has sharply escalated the process of dismantling the elite-guided democracies in Europe themselves.
We readily appreciate the fact that democratic government is a product of social and historical developments that are particular to given regions and societies, and that the attitudinal and institutional predicates of democracy are unevenly spread across the world, just as Montesquieu, Locke and most others of their generation of political philosophers believed to be the case. We accept, in other words, that the prospects for democracy, while permanently off-limits to no people, are horizontally uneven. But we are curiously blind to the variability of democratic prospects over time on the vertical axis, so to speak. The social foundations of democracy churn ceaselessly, albeit slowly. A concatenation of factors conducive to the founding of democracy at one time may shift even as the formal structure of democracy remains inert.  The result is a creeping “tectonic” misalignment between social realities and political instrumentalities that can eventually threaten democracy itself. We’re used to talking about the decay of social institutions throughout history, but we have somehow inoculated ourselves from thinking that it could possibly happen to us.
This is what has happened in Europe, however. Not too little, but too much, elite-directed social democracy has undermined the critical balances and social rhythms that Europeans need to maintain mature political democracy. At the heart of the European project, which is characterized by policy without politics on the European level and politics without policy on the nation-state level, is an act of self-subversion: an example, in other words, of the cultural contradictions not of capitalism, but of democracy. (And while I am interested here mainly in Europe, some of this analysis may also apply to American society and other outposts of liberal democracy worldwide.)
The Five Revolutions of the Democracy Paradox
The central political paradox of our time is this: Key factors that contributed to the initial success of European project now block solutions to its current crisis. The crisis of trust in democratic institutions in Europe is the outcome not of the failure of the democratization or integration of its societies but of the excessive and unbalanced success of both. In his rightly celebrated The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell was a herald of the dour news that institutions can unwittingly unleash attacks against their own foundations. He was not the only such prophet, however, or even the most prescient. Three decades ago, Leszek Kolakowski wrote:
As I was browsing through The Open Society and Its Enemies again after many years, it struck me that when Popper attacks totalitarian ideologies and movements, he neglects the reverse side of the threat. By this I mean what could be called the self-enmity of the open society—not merely the inherent inability of democracy to defend itself effectively against internal enemies by democratic means alone, but more importantly, the process by which the extension and consistent application of liberal principles transforms them into their antithesis.
Kolakowski’s emphasis on the self-poisoning nature of open societies is critically important to understanding the current troubles Europe faces. It helps to think of this self-poisoning as the unintended consequence of five revolutions that have shattered our world since 1968:
- the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which de-legitimated all social hierarchies and put the individual at the center of politics;
- the market revolution of the 1980s, which de-legitimized the state as a principal economic actor;
- the East/Central European revolutions of 1989, which appeared to reconcile the cultural revolution of the 1960s (resisted by the Right) and market revolution of the 1980s (rejected by the Left), and which that persuaded us of the ahistorical proposition that liberal democracy was timeless (the end of History, as it were);
- the 1990s revolution in communications, brought about by the sharply accelerating spread of cybernetic technologies, not least the internet;
- the 2000s revolution in the neurosciences, which changed our understanding of how the human brain works, enabling the more systematic manipulation of emotions to displace rationality at the heart of democratic politics.
In their early stages, all five of these revolutions deepened the democratic experience. The cultural revolution dismantled the authoritarian family and gave new meaning to the idea of individual freedom. The market revolution contributed to the global spread of democratic regimes and the collapse of communism. The revolutions of 1989 spread and deepened Europe’s democratic experience and extinguished an existential threat to European security. The internet revolution gave citizens new access to information and powers of expression and is arguably also enriching our thinking about society, even as it is redefining the very notion of political community. The sharing of information and images now challenges the status of belonging physically to a community as the dominant form of social solidarity. And the new science of the brain has restored an appreciation for the role of emotions in politics and political life.
Paradoxically, these same five revolutions now animate the current crisis of liberal democracy in Europe (and perhaps not only Europe). The cultural revolution diminished the decline of the shared sense of purpose, thus challenging the very governability of modern democracies. The politics of the Sixties, too, devolved into the aggregation of individual claims upon society and state. Identity politics, whether expressed in terms of ethnicity, gender or sectarian identification, colonized public discourse. The current backlash against multiculturalism is a direct result of the failure of Sixties politics to formulate a shared view of society. The rise of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe, of which more below, is certainly a dangerous trend, but it flows out of a deep and legitimate desire for community, for a common life knit together by an integral culture; it is not fairly characterized as simply xenophobic resentment against foreigners. The rise of an often angry populism in Europe tells us that clashing demands in modern societies cannot be resolved by reducing democratic politics to the politics of rights.
The market revolution of the 1980s made societies wealthier and more interconnected than ever, but it broke the positive link between the spread of democracy and the spread of equality. From the late 19th century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West all grew less unequal. But the emergence of a truly global capitalism has reversed this trend, leading to an obsession with wealth creation and fostering an anti-government passion at the core of the crisis of governability in Western democracies today. Setting aside for the moment the irony that the new hyper-consumerism followed the West’s victory over Marxist materialism, the revolt against the elites flows from the fact that most ordinary citizens now see the political and social changes of the “neo-liberal decades” as having advantaged the elites at everyone else’s expense. In the brave new world market, the elites broke free of ideological, national and community constraints and built an offshore economy that features a vast tax-evasion network involving trillions of dollars that is open only to the very wealthy. The result is that while during the Great Depression most people lost trust in the market but not in government, and that while in the 1970s and 1980s they lost trust in government but re-gained faith in the market, today they increasingly mistrust both.
By declaring democracy the normal state of society and restricting democratization to an imitation of the institutions and practices of developed democracies, Central Europe’s new post-communist ideology committed two sins. It trivialized the tensions between democracy and capitalism, which are inherent and even necessary to all market democracies, and it contributed to a sense of triumphalism that turned democracy from a society of choice into the only legitimate option for all mankind. Democracy lost its critics, and with them some of its creative potential, without losing its contradictions or its enemies.
The internet revolution fragmented the public square and re-drew the borders of political communities. The irony here is that the free flow of information became a torrent that threatened to wash away all context and nuance in public discussions. Social media may have empowered people to stand up to the powerful (and this point is debatable), but it has done nothing to strengthen the deliberative and representative processes of democracy. In other words, it has shown it can tear down society, as in Egypt, but not that it can contribute to building up a new society in its place.
The rapid advances in cognitive science have helped us understand how people think, but that new knowledge threatens to become a powerful instrument of manipulation. This would mark a radical break from the Enlightenment tradition of idea-based politics, making Karl Rove, not Karl Popper, the avatar of 21st-century neo-democratic politics.
In short, we have reached what Alexander Gerschenkron called a “nodal point.” In a relatively short period we have witnessed and participated in aesthetic, ideological and institutional redefinitions of the meaning of both democracy and European society. These redefinitions are ongoing, but the misalignment between our politics and our social reality is coming to a head. Our present crisis isn’t really about banks or money. It is not even about the institutional deficiencies of Europe. It goes deeper than all of that.
The New Populism
In the 1960s, many liberals feared that Europe’s democratic institutions remained hostages of the authoritarian cultures from which they had but recently emerged. World War II, a war in which most Europeans fought for non- or anti-democratic regimes, destroyed those regimes but not the underlying attitudes that had sustained them. Today we have the opposite problem: Order does not destroy freedom; freedom destroys order. In today’s European Union, citizens’ rights are protected, people have access to more information and are freer to travel and practice their lifestyles than ever. But these freedoms have increasingly paralyzed Europe’s democratic institutions over the past forty years. Democratic societies are becoming ungovernable as the ideas of a common life and a public interest have gone missing. Trust in politicians has reached a new low.
The current European economic crisis is producing two very different conceptions of democracy. In countries like Germany, the public’s influence in democratic politics is increasing; in countries like Greece and Italy, the public’s influence in decision-making, especially economic decision-making, is decreasing. What Berlin and Paris have to offer the citizens in Italy, Greece or Spain is a democracy in which the voters can change governments but not the basic economic policies of those governments. The logic of current proposals for strengthening the euro would take virtually all economic policy decision-making out of electoral politics, presenting citizens in debtor countries with the unappealing choice of either “democracy without choices” or “occupying” the streets.
The results of this inversion are so strange to us that we have trouble naming and acknowledging what we are seeing—and so we often don’t, in effect, actually see them. Like the “blankers” in José Saramago’s novel Seeing, Europeans appear increasingly apolitical, but their refusal to pretend that what’s left of their national electoral processes gives them a choice worth making is deeply subversive. They increasingly come to the streets but not to the ballot boxes. They attack capitalism in moral terms, not in policy terms. They see their camp as an alternative but they cannot put a name to what their camp stands for. They have no leaders because they refuse to be anyone’s followers.
Perhaps the strangest thing about today’s European rebels is that they seek to preserve the old status quo; we are thus witnessing 1968 in reverse. Then, students on the streets of Europe declared their desire to live in a world different from that of their parents. Now students are on the street to declare their right to live in the same world as that of their parents, but fear they cannot. Faced with the choice between opening their borders to preserve prosperity and closing them to preserve the cultural identity of their societies, they choose both: prosperity and fortress Europe.
European democracy today is thus not threatened by the rise of anti-democratic alternatives; it is trapped by citizens’ fully democratic desire to choose “none of the above.” As Pierre Rosenvallon has put it:
The function of opposition is framed more and more often in terms of indictment (on the model of the great English political trials of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), eclipsing a vision of politics as the rivalry among different programs. The figure of the citizen as a voter is today more and more overtaken by the image of the citizen as a juror.
This explains why most pan-European votes today end up as referenda on derailing the idea of “Europe” as a construct of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. Until recently, however, none of these votes— including the French and the Dutch “no” to the referenda on the European constitution— have stopped the European elite from pressing its project forward. The result is that, at the fringes of European societies, at least, there are now deeply mistrustful, conspiracy- minded, uncomfortably intense and significant minorities who are scared of the future. Fear in politics on such a scale has consequences we know all too well.
Consider: A February 2011 poll on identity and extremism discovered that a huge number of Britons are now ready to support an anti-immigration nationalist party, so long as it is not associated with violence and fascist imagery. In France, a March 2011 opinion poll showed that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen would have been one of the two winners in the first round of voting. A May 2011 Forsa Institute survey showed that “right-wing ideas appeal to an unexpectedly broad portion of the [German] population.” Some 70 percent of those surveyed said that Germany gives too much money to the European Union. Almost half want Germany to drastically reduce immigration. Thirty percent said that they would like an “independent Germany, without the Euro, where the EU holds no legal sway.”
Surprisingly, right-wing ideas clearly find support on both the center-right and the far left. In Denmark, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland, anti-immigrant parties are now strong enough to re-shape national politics. In Central and Eastern Europe, fear of immigrants is not the defining political issue, principally because there are fewer immigrants. But levels of xenophobia and racism are striking nonetheless. They are, in fact, much higher than in Western Europe despite the absence of large numbers of immigrants. A 2011 study of eight European countries by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation showed that 77 percent of Hungarians view immigrants as a burden to the welfare state, and that the majority of Hungarians and Poles oppose the integration of foreigners into their own culture. A later survey found that prosperous Europeans are among the most pessimistic citizens on the planet. At the close of the last century Europeans saw themselves as the big winners from globalization. Today a majority of Europeans view themselves as losers from those same currents.
These polls aren’t simply the result of collective national neurosis. All over the western parts of Europe, integral historical communities have witnessed their control over everyday life erode as ever more decisions are made by Brussels, the European Central Bank, or corporate headquarters across the globe. At the same time, the very look and feel of these communities has been destabilized by immigrants so numerous and culturally distinct as to seem impossible to assimilate. Throughout Western Europe today, threatened majorities are acting more like aggrieved minorities. They blame the real or imagined loss of control over their lives on a conspiracy between cosmopolitanminded elites and tribal-minded immigrants who refuse to endorse genuine social integration on majority terms. In different ways and for different reasons, both advocate a “world without borders”, a world that average people have increasingly come to fear and to hate.
Thus, ironically, Europe’s democratic institutions are more transparent than ever but less trusted than ever. Democratic elites are more meritocratic than ever but more resented than ever. Our societies are more open and democratic than ever, but also less effective than ever. The European Union, which cannot be sustained as an elite-led project but which cannot survive as a democratic project either, now depends on either the birth of European demos or the preservation of the elite-controlled democracies. A democracy without ademos has even less chance to survive than a common currency without a common treasury.
The process of European integration succeeded in delegitimizing the European nationstate but it failed to create a common European public space and common European political identity. The populist recoil away from the European Union is thus tantamount to a reassertion of more parochial, but culturally deeper identities within individual European countries. This movement is driving European politics toward less inclusive, and possibly less liberal, definitions of political community.
Publics in most European countries fear aging and depopulation. They fear that immigrants or ethnic minorities are overtaking their countries and threatening their way of life. They fear that European prosperity can no longer be taken for granted and that Europe’s influence in global politics is in decline. Contrary to the expectations of many political observers, the economic crisis has not weakened but rather strengthened the appeal of identity politics. The xenophobic Right, not the egalitarian Left, is benefitting most from the crisis in pure political terms. Yet we must be careful here: The sharp Left-Right divide, which structured European politics ever since the French Revolution, is gradually blurring. With the rise of a rightwing populism of the sort unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, proletarian forces are now liable to capture by decidedly anti-liberal leaderships. Threatened majorities—those who have everything and who therefore fear everything—have emerged as the major force in European politics. The emerging illiberal political consensus is not limited to right-wing radicalism; it encompasses the transformation of the European mainstream itself. It is not what extremists say that threatens Europe; the real threat is what the mainstream leaders no longer say—for example, that diversity is good for Europe.
Threatened majorities now express a genuine fear that they are becoming the losers of globalization. Globalization may have contributed the rise of numerous middle classes outside the developed world, but it is eroding the economic and political foundations of the middle-class societies of post-World War II Europe. In this sense the new populism represents not the losers of today but the prospective losers of tomorrow.
The new populism also differs dramatically from the traditional populist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries in its language, political objectives and ideological sources. It does not represent the aspirations of the repressed but rather the frustration of the empowered. It is not a populism of “the people” held in thrall by the romantic imagination of nationalists, as was the case a century and more ago, but a populism of the pragmatic complaint of majorities as manifested in almost daily published opinion polls. It is a kind of populism for which history and precedent have poorly prepared us.
News media talk of banks and defaults and Franco–German disagreements over fiscal policy. They talk of benevolent technocrats and angry youth. Some are now even prepared to admit a single currency amid more than two dozen separate treasuries was destined to fail all along. True believers in the European project like to remind us that over the years Europe has been like a desperate man lurching from rock to rock in a swift flowing river, each crisis resolved in turn in a way that advances progress toward the far shore. We should worry, yes, but our anxieties are the fuel that will bring us to the next level of success.
Alas, there are no more rocks, and there is no way forward to that shore. This time the most basic disjunction of all in the European project— the fact that a demos must precede, not follow, a state structure and economic integration—has caught up with it. Let us be clear: The emergence of the elite-controlled liberal democracies in postwar Western Europe made European integration possible and successful, and it is the transformation of these regimes by dint of the rise of a new populism that explains why Europe is in trouble today. The real reason for Europe’s economic crisis is that there was never anywhere near enough of a social foundation for the political and economic edifice European elites have tried to build. The success of democracy in Europe at its most elemental level is now allowing European peoples to express their opposition, if not to the project itself, then to a range of discomforts that have been produced by it. That is Europe’s real crisis, and it is a crisis of political culture. Everything else is a sideshow. The only way to save the European project, then, is to reinvent it.
1. Davies, “Diminished and disdained, the Euroland will yet defy the skeptics”, Financial Times, October 28, 2011.
2. See Harold James, “Channeling Alexander Hamilton”, The American Interest (January/February 2012).
3. See for example the analysis in Allen C. Lynch, “What Russia Can Be: Paradoxes of Liberalism and Democracy”, The American Interest (November/December 2006).
4. Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 162.
5. Ivan Krastev, “The Balkans: Democracy Without Choices”, Journal of Democracy (July 2002).
6. Rosenvallon, Democracy Past and Future (Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 244.
7. Global Barometer of Hope and Despair for 2011.
Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. (See also Timothy Snyder’s comment „How Democracy Can Save Europe“ where he refers to Krastev’s diagnosis.)
Tr@nsit online, 2012
This piece originally appeared in The American Interest, vol. VII, nr. 4, Spring (March/April) 2012. © 2011 by the author & The American Interest. No copies of this work may be reprinted or distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from The American Interest.