“European political debate at present centres around the rising popular resistance to Brussels, to its growing centralisation of power, and to particular policies it has pursued (such as relocating migrants), often with little or no consultation, across the continent. It seems likely, though not certain, that this resistance will mean major changes in the strength of different parties in Brussels and Strasbourg following next May’s EU elections.”
Lord (P. T.) Bauer, the distinguished Anglo-Hungarian economist whose work we discussed recently in these pages, used to make an important distinction in his study of the theory of development economics. When the recovery of Germany and other European economies after the war was attributed to economic aid under the Marshall Plan, he would point out that “reconstruction aid” was entirely different to “development aid” in its logic and consequences.
What Germany and others received was reconstruction aid. It was intended to provide capital to economies ruined by the physical destruction of war in order to rebuild infrastructure and to give their skilled and educated workforces the machinery to raise production to pre-war levels. That assistance was important, but it was secondary to the fact that the workforces (though depleted by millions of deaths and serious casualties) were already skilled, educated, and possessing attitudes and aptitudes conducive to economic success. They already had or were human capital. Once they were given financial and physical capital as well, they worked their way back to prosperity in a surprisingly short time. Economic commentators were discussing the German economic “miracle” by about 1954, and the Mark began its seemingly unstoppable rise on the currency markets soon after.
Development aid could not produce the same kind of miracle, however, because it was an attempt to solve the far more difficult task of making the populations of aid-recipient countries educated, skilled, and culturally attuned to getting and spending. It is hard enough to give education and skills to entire populations successfully, but harder to transform cultural attitudes that obstruct economic development, and well-nigh impossible to do so by transferring capital to their governments. Bauer plausibly argued that government-to-government capital transfers might even be an obstacle to Third World development because they strengthened corrupt governments and encouraged attitudes hostile to prosperity such as the concentration of energy on politics rather than economic life. Be that as it may, Bauer’s conclusion that aid from abroad cannot significantly increase a country’s prosperity because it has little impact on the personal qualities and cultural influences that really determine it is now firmly established in the economic literature. As he himself mordantly forecast, however, it has had little or no influence on aid policies of either governments or international organisations.
All that is by way of a sceptical introduction to a different sort of development, namely political development, that is the topic of several important essays in this issue. Political development is a phrase implying that politics is moving along a pre-determined course in the same way that a human body goes through successive stages of growth from foetus through growth and maturity to death when it proceeds to decay. The phrase also implies that this is a more or less inevitable process that we (or at least the speaker) can readily predict and map out in advance. In recent years almost all international agencies and most democratic governments in their rhetoric and planning have mapped out the stages of this development broadly as follows: human societies begin as tribes, conquer or are conquered and form empires, discover national and democratic consciousness, disaggregate into nation states, encounter problems that nation states cannot handle, and so gradually surrender (“share”) their sovereignty to larger regional bodies better able to deliver solutions to these global problems.
A sceptic will naturally find flaws in this rather abstract summary of many historical events, almost all of them messy. But one that strikes at its overall credibility is the nature of the larger regional bodies that seem to be either History’s end point or the last station before a single global polity. In what sense are they different to the empires from which the nation states had earlier emancipated themselves? A recent important book – The Virtue of Nationalism – by the Israeli scholar, Yoram Hazony, argues powerfully that they are in fact the same thing, even if in the international politics of today they must claim more progressive features than the old colonial empires. We will devote deeper attention to Mr Hazony’s work in a future issue. In the meantime, to over-simplify his thesis brutally: institutions such as the European Union are empires because they unite several different nations under a single government that lacks both real democratic accountability for its central government and the unifying force of being a single demos with common memories, loyalties and sense of mutual destiny.
Even a few years ago that argument sounded a bridge too far. But the proposals of President Macron and Chancellor Merkel for federalist economic and military EU bodies with greater authority would clearly take us a long way towards an imperial Europe. The French economics minister, Bruno Le Maire, recently said with splendid French logic that since the European Union was an empire, we would administer it more intelligently if we accepted the fact. And if “More Europe” has a real meaning, it is as the unifying manifesto of this tendency – the equivalent of my namesake John O’Sullivan’s coinage in the American context: Manifest Destiny.
A difficulty for empires is that they eventually meet resistance from nationalism which the EU has sought to anticipate by making nationalism the explanation and synonym for war, dictatorship and sundry other evils. A second related difficulty is that they also find it hard to reconcile their government by remote bureaucracy with real democracy and accountability. Those difficulties scarcely mattered in the first age of imperial expansion since both nationalism and democracy had not yet emerged in the political imagination of colonised peoples. But they emerged under the later stages of the Empire as Nicholas T. Parsons points out in his review of the final years of the Habsburgs when the Empire responded with a humane and generous policy of “unity in diversity”. Centralising economic and political power while attempting the de-centralisation of national and cultural rights, however, is to ride two horses going in different directions simultaneously. The Empire collapsed for many reasons, but this central contradiction was not the least of them.
In our post-democratic age the contradiction may be still more glaring. The sketch above of Man’s progress from the swamp to global governance has a curious circularity. Empire in it emerges early in political evolution. It is challenged and (usually) overthrown as people develop a desire to govern themselves both individually and collectively. And then, surprisingly, it re-appears and re- establishes itself in post-modern form as EU or UN bodies. But how realistic is this? Imposing imperial rule on people who have had long experience of governing themselves is likely to be far more difficult than imposing it on people who have known only autocratic rule. If these new forms of post-democratic empire are to work, the democratic peoples in nation states would have to forget the skills, habits, loyalties and moral self-confidence that living in free societies instils in people. They would have to accept tamely and without serious protest the orders sent down from a foreign city answerable to so many peoples that it could not be truly answerable to their own people. They would have to regress as people to a lower level of political and moral sophistication.
All those things would be equivalent to the Germans forgetting how to work, save, invest, produce and innovate in Bauer’s economic analysis. Such a forgetting does not seem at all likely. And in fact it is not happening. European political debate at present centres around the rising popular resistance to Brussels, to its growing centralisation of power, and to particular policies it has pursued (such as relocating migrants), often with little or no consultation, across the continent. It seems likely, though not certain, that this resistance will mean major changes in the strength of different parties in Brussels and Strasbourg following next May’s EU elections.
But the political system of post-democratic empire has foreseen this danger and invented a series of moral and institutional innovations designed to get around it. Miklós Szánthó in his article identifies three of these: political correctness; the curtailment of national sovereignty; and juristocracy, in particular the enactment of a global constitutional framework over and above national constitutions. These developments represent the transfer of political power from elected and accountable bodies such as parliaments to non-accountable bodies such as the courts and international treaties. They also serve the purpose of justifying such arbitrary rule. And, no less important, they also create an institutional maze in which anyone who is not a corporate lobbyist or an international lawyer is doomed to wander lost and confused if he should be foolish enough to try amending a law or objecting to a statement of “values” emanating from the permanent bureaucracy or its representative in the European Assembly. As Szánthó puts it:
This is exactly why the “new priesthood” works so hard to establish the aforementioned “global constitutional law” as a source of “surrogate legitimacy” which, in the name of political correctness, invariably prioritises the interests of minorities to the detriment of the majority… To what end? While “the people remain incapable of fulfilling its mission” or, God forbid, are “not yet ready to receive democracy”, it is nice to have handy an appropriately abstract arsenal of international or European standards to fall back on. This corpus can then be cited any time…
For a long time this constitutional sleight of hand worked effectively because it was largely unobserved. It was discussed only in the obscurity of journals of political theory. As it has been dragged out into the open by insurgent political movements since the 2015 migration crisis, however, supporters of the status quo have presented disputes around it as offering a choice between “liberal democracy” and “populism”. As Schumpeter said of Marxism, this is “preaching in the garb of analysis”. The liberal democracy of the Brussels system, as analysed by Szánthó, is far from democratic, and as political correctness spreads, it is increasingly not very liberal either. Much has been written on the corruption of this portmanteau term in the Review and need not be repeated here.
But the second half of the choice is also false. Indeed, it is positively deceptive to suggest that all resistance to the status quo is “populist” in nature. Insofar as “populism” is more than simply an all-purpose slander, it is a political doctrine that virtue and judgement live more reliably in the people than in corrupt elites. That view is not always wrong, but it is not right significantly more often than wrong, and it must be tested against the facts on each occasion. It is anyway only one political tendency resisting the spread of the EU’s liberal-democratic imperialism. Conservatism, classical liberalism, nationalism, religious traditionalism and some traditional left-wing philosophies of solidarity also resist its advance.
That ideological variety emerges in the article by Emil Brix on the question of whether Austria has “changed” – that is, has the country aligned itself with Central European political trends under its new government, an alliance of conservatives and right populists, under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz? Of course, we should not exaggerate the distance between the politics of both halves of Europe as the recent elections in Italy warn us. And when it comes to the rise of anti-Semitism or public violence, a France dominated by political parties that champion the EU’s liberal-democracy should give us more cause for concern than anywhere in Central Europe. It is true, however, that there has been more open and sustained criticism of Brussels and its philosophy of More Europe from political leaders in Central Europe than elsewhere. As Brix points out, however, we are still in an early stage of flux: “The verdict is out as to whether this may lead to an Orbán- style ‘illiberal democracy’, or to a Kaczyński-style ‘patriotic nationalism’, or even a Babiš-style business-friendly ‘economics first’ regime.” Not all these leaders would necessarily agree with Brix’s summary of their positions – Orbán has recently defined “illiberal democracy” as a democracy that does not automatically elect liberals. And that is before we add Kurz’s new conservatism to the flux with its liberal economic reductions in taxes and regulations and its balanced commitment that in future the EU should “do less but (do what it does) more effectively”.
In short both Austria and the Visegrád Four know what they do not like – namely the heavy-hand of Brussels. But they are still feeling their way towards a more independent national politics that will deliver the goods for their peoples. They do not all agree on what that politics should look like – or that it should necessarily look like the same thing in all countries. And “populism” is only one ingredient in any of their mixes. But they believe they are leading the rest of Europe in a post- Brussels direction of Less Europe.
We will know soon if they are right. That said, holding words such as liberalism, democracy and populism faithful to their original truths and meanings is a revolution or counter-revolution in political thought as much as in politics. As such, it has a permanent claim on our attention and jostles comfortably with such essays on the “permanent things” as Ilona Sármány’s learned reflections on the place or absence of Central European art in the Western canon, Katalin Gellér’s discussion of images of death in Hungarian symbolism, Gordon McKechnie’s nostalgic return to a revived Prague after many years, Cardinal Ravasi’s introduction to what the excavations at Machaerus have revealed, and Paul Sohár’s second exploration of Transylvanian poets in what we are proud to record as our fiftieth issue. We hope you will continue with us towards our hundredth birthday.