‘Reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.1’1 Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Vol. 1 (London:
National Illustrated Library, 1852), preface.
Thus wrote Charles Mackay in 1852. We might add that, at a later age in the annals of Europe, its population lost their wits, financial credibility, and any potential for liberal, progressive, democratic development over the illusion of ever closer European Union.
As conservative historian Niall Ferguson observed at the time, the EU richly deserved Brexit. Warnings about the problem of currency union in the 1990s have since come to fruition, making it almost impossible for many countries in the bloc to recover.22 Niall Ferguson, ‘Sorry, I was wrong to fight Brexit’, The Times (18 December 2017). This already dire situation has been further exacerbated by the central bank response to COVID and the inflation and shortages that now beset Europe, amplified of course by the current Ukraine crisis, itself a product of European inertia.
Like its economic fiscal policy, Europe’s foreign policy has been an exercise in managerialism rather than realism, and the consequences have been failure both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Reponses to migration and Islamism merely exacerbated both problems after 2012, whilst in Ukraine, EU policy— with US help—overreached without investing the sustained commitment to deter Russia and the slow-motion revenge of Putin’s revisionist power.
BREXIT AND THE DISORDER OF EUROPE
The West, if it is not to enter the decline that Oswald Spengler anticipated at the end of the First World War,33 Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Vol. 1, 1918; Vol. 2, 1922). Translated into
English as The Decline of the West (London, 1926). needs a foreign policy geared to long-term interests in a rapidly changing world no longer en route to a liberal democratic end of history. This has become a more urgent task since the UK left the EU in 2020 and US foreign and economic policy since Trump has demonstrated a disturbing propensity for capricious behaviour. European policy must not only consider the economic dimension of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, but also how economics and geopolitics are linked in an interconnected but by no means integrated world.
Meanwhile a common European defence force without the UK, or an enhanced commitment to NATO proposed as its ‘compass’ at the most recent EU summit, would be to conduct diplomacy over the next decade without a military increasingly resembling, as Frederick the Great wrote during the partition of Poland, an orchestra without instruments.
This has evident consequences for Russia’s near abroad, and is why one suspects the Visegrád Group will need to function more coherently as a bloc in the future. This will become even more crucial as the EU, under its own internal centrifugal pressure, begins to fragment. Populists in both France and Italy see no need for the current regime of sanctions against Russia.
In this context, the constant incantation of the return of the Cold War rhetoric regarding Russian irredentism is a lazy anachronism, and demonstrates the fallacy of viewing the current conflict through the lens of the last, albeit colder, war. As the British historian J. M. Roberts wrote, ‘it is always disappointing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense […]. The hardest thing to understand about much of the past is its errors and delusions.4’4 In R. L. Moore, The War on Heresy, Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London: Profile Books,
Errors and delusions, as the current Russian partition of Ukraine demonstrates, have implications. In this troubled context of the apparent fraying of the European body politic, it is perhaps the task of sceptical conservatives to identify what has occurred rather than propose specific remedies.
RATIONALISM AND THE BODY POLITIC
The current wave of geopolitical and economic uncertainty troubling Europe and its political institutions both at the state and the regional level is, of course, nothing new. The historian Norman Davies has shown in a number of books and articles how often European principalities, republics, and monarchies have collapsed or mutated into new forms. In Vanished Kingdoms, Davies traced the rise and fall of various European political entities, from the end of the Western Roman Empire to the ‘ultimate vanishing act’ the USSR performed in 1991.55 Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. The History of Half-forgotten Europe (London: Allen and Lane,
Davies’s history of half-forgotten Europe concludes with a chapter examining ‘How States Die’ and whether ‘discernible patterns of causation can account for this demise’. As Davies observes, his analysis coincides with a developing field in political science research, analysing the manner in which state systems—and more particularly liberal democracies—fail, endure breakdown, ‘wither’, ‘disintegrate’, or die.66 Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, 731–732.
This current enthusiasm for comparing and categorizing failing states and their political breakdown draws, without acknowledgement, on a European tradition of political thought which, since Plato and Aristotle first identified the phenomenon, has assessed the factors that explain state dissolution, stasis, or disintegration.77 Aristotle, The Politics (London: Allen and Lane, 1979). See particularly Book 5, 189; Plato, The
Republic, in The Portable Plato (London: Penguin, 1979), especially Book 8. In this vein, seventeenth-century English political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, attempting to understand the course of the English Civil War and its aftermath, sought to disclose, from different perspectives, the internal ‘diseases that tend to the dissolution of a commonwealth’. The most common intestinal problem they identified was internal and external war, leading to the disintegration of a political commonwealth, whether in England or continental Europe. In referring to the decay of commonwealths, Hobbes particularly drew upon and revised the most enduring analogy in Western political thought, that of the body politic. States and unions, in other words, dissolve from a number of ‘distempers’ or diseases.
Apart from Hobbes, there is a large and varied literature in both the Greco-Roman and Christian, as well as the Abbasid and Ottoman Islamic, traditions of statecraft. After the fall of Christendom and the emergence of Europe as an idea, much was made of the image of the political body, the stages of its growth and development, and the reasons for its death. Meanwhile, the great Muslim thinkers Ibn Khaldun and Kâtip Çelebi devoted treatises to the relationship between the various organs in the body and the means of correcting their defects. Civilizations, it seems, proceed inexorably through stages of growth, maturity, and luxury, and once corrupted decline into increasing senility and inevitable death.88 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah. An Introduction to History (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
If we consider our current predicament from this analogical perspective, it is evident that body politics like the EU come and go in Europe with far more frequency than we like to admit. From his careful examination of vanished kingdoms, Davies contends that apart from the internal and external factors affecting state development and decay, involuntary and voluntary factors also play their part. In Europe’s modern history, five mechanisms may be identified: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation, and infant mortality.
In this context, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which vanished in the course of the eighteenth century as a result of a series of partitionary wars launched by its stronger neighbours, died by unnatural causes. By contrast, other political arrangements start life through the amalgamation of pre-existing units. The degree of amalgamation differs widely. Spain and the UK offer obvious contemporary examples, best described in the corporate language of merger and demerger. Another recent example of demerger would be Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile other mergers like those leading to the evolution of the Soviet Union after 1917 were essentially coercive.
Given their own difficult histories, the Visegrád Group should be aware of this, far more perhaps than the European community of states they joined at the end of the Cold War. The terms of membership by which one more successful body incorporates others is always a source of tension. It is no wonder perhaps that the remarkable document signed at Horodło that created a Polish–Lithuanian union was more successful than the Treaty of Lisbon. The preamble to the Pact of Horodło (1413) noted that ‘whoever is unsupported by the mystery of love shall not achieve the grace of salvation […]. For by love laws are made, kingdoms governed, cities ordered and the state is brought to its proper goal. Whoever casts love aside shall lose everything.9’9 Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, 258. Compare this with the bureaucratese of the Lisbon Treaty and the current absence of love displayed, whether between Brussels and the UK or Brussels and Hungary.
In this context of political bodies merging and demerging, it is evident the USSR imploded. The one-party state had the equivalent of a heart attack and died from natural causes. A similar post-Brexit fate could be in store for the EU unless some radical surgery takes place.
MYTHOLOGY AND STATECRAFT
Despite its current weakness and potential for implosion, demerger, or death from natural causes, it is nevertheless worth bearing in mind Europe’s protean capacity to reinvent itself. The Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel, which expressed an unchanging, human, yet peculiarly Western disposition, might in these troubled times shed an interesting if neglected light upon the all too human yearning for integration and unanimity.1010 Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, in On History and Other Essays (Oxford: Blackwell,
In its Old Testament version, after the flood, God, man, and nature were reconciled in a covenant made between God and Abraham. Abraham’s grandnephew, Nimrod, however found the terms unacceptable and launched his followers on a project to conquer heaven by building a tower to reach it. Rather than let loose another flood, Abraham persuaded God to solve the threat by ‘confounding the tongues’ of Nimrod and his fellows. Thus, not by a flood, but in a deluge of meaningless words, was the empire of Nimrod destroyed. Babel, which originally meant the city of liberation, acquired its mythic significance as the city of confusion.
Significantly two major thinkers and writers of the twentieth century, the Austrian-Jewish liberal novelist Stefan Zweig and the English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, both adapted the Babel legend to the historical evolution of the modern European political project. Interestingly, they address the myth in very different, and from the perspective of ever closer Union and the potential for catastrophic fragmentation, equally prescient ways.
Zweig wrote that the symbols found in originary myths harbour a ‘wonderful poetic force’ suggesting, as they do, ‘great moments of a later history in which peoples renew themselves’ and in which the most significant epochs have their roots.1111 Stefan Zweig, Messages from a Lost World. Europe on the Brink (London: Pushkin Press, 2016), 53. For Zweig, the Babel myth intimates a desire for unity—humans finding themselves in a foreign place with no means of escape, a place that seems to them uncertain and filled with danger, while high above them they see the sky and pool their resources in an attempt to reach it. This ‘communal work brings them together’.1212 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 53.
Their endeavours are remarkably successful, but a cruel and fearful God concerned by this human drive for unity which only the Godhead achieves, sows dissension through the Babel of different languages, ensuring they do not understand one another. God’s ‘dark resolution’ smote ‘the spirit of unity and dedication’.1313 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 54. The project collapses, ‘centuries […] passed and men lived in the isolation of their languages’, but the dream did not die. After millennia, the abandoned project of community and the longing to come together again reasserts itself.1414 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 54.
As a result, the Tower of Babel once more ‘began to rise gradually from the soil of Europe, the monument […] to mankind’s solidarity. But it was no longer raw materials that went into this tower’s construction. […] The new tower was built with a more delicate and yet more indestructible substance which they discovered on earth’ in the long era of division and separation, ‘that of spirituality and experience, the most sublime material of the soul’.1515 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 56.
However, a cruel God, horrified at their endeavour, caused confusion to break out amongst them. ‘This is the monstrous moment we are living through today’, Zweig wrote in 1916.1616 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58. See John Gray, ‘Foreword’, 27–28. He returned to the theme again in 1930 and 1932, observing that ‘The new Tower of Babel, the great monument to the spiritual unity of Europe, lies in decay, its workers have lost their way’. Zweig would no doubt see contemporary Europe’s predicament as the response of a vengeful God who has sown dissension amongst Europeans who, indifferent to the Union’s collapse, ‘believe that their contribution can be withdrawn from the magnificent construction’.
Nevertheless, Zweig would maintain Babel’s ‘battlements stand, still its invisible blocks loom over a world in disarray’.1717 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58. Moreover, some believe that a single people, a single nation can never achieve what a collective of European nations could, and ‘must be brought to completion in our Europe’.1818 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58.
Zweig’s optimistic paeon to the ‘heroic’ European ‘endeavour’ to overcome national attachments contrasts with Oakeshott’s pessimism towards what he understood as an exercise in rationalism. Oakeshott tells the tale somewhat differently. The modern day Nimrod inspires his Babelian subjects with a vision of ‘forcing open the gates of heaven, dislodging [the] miserly deity from his estate and appropriating for the enjoyment of all Babelians the limitless profusion of paradise’.1919 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 179–180. Ultimately, the motivation for such an endeavour stemmed from greed and a ‘profound feeling of being alike deprived: allowed to have wishes but denied their immediate satisfaction’.2020 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 181. As a consequence of the joint endeavour, the city of freedom acquired over time ‘a new communal identity in place of their former distinct individualities’.2121 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 182. All conduct was recognized only in relation to the enterprise. Proverbial gaiety gave way to a spurious gravity.
Moreover, as the endeavour proceeded with no apparent end in sight, supported only by a precarious vision of limitless satisfaction, and marked by no interim satisfactions to break the monotony, it took its toll in emotional stress. Suspicion and distrust concerning Nimrod and his Brusselian elite’s intentions lead to the alienated masses launching a catastrophic assault on the tower, precipitating its collapse. ‘What had been designed as a stairway to paradise [became] the tomb of an entire people, not perished in a confusion of tongues, but the victims of a delusion and confounded by the distrust which dogs those who engage in titanic exploits.’ Ultimately, for Oakeshott, ‘those who in Elysian fields would dwell, do but extend the boundaries of hell’.2222 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 194.
The conscious endeavour to instrumentalize a morality of ideals, in this case a European ideal, is ultimately hubristic. The attempt to build an EU represents the antithesis of a creative moral or, we also might add, political project. Properly understood, ‘the situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life, or for that matter a political condition, in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives.23’23 Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1948), in Rationalism in Politics and other essays (London:
Methuen, 1962), 61. Conduct, instead, is as nearly as possible without reflection. Consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgement, or as problems requiring solution. There is, on occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been educated or, more precisely, to which we have become habituated.
This is evidently not our current condition. As Roger Scruton wrote of our growing subjection to technocratic management by unaccountable elites through virtual networks, that erodes places and erases the hierarchies that settle there: ‘They replace space by time, and time by a succession of crowded instants in which nothing really happens since everything only happens on screen. […] The web is an unspecified nowhere, a Hobbesian state of nature in cyberspace. But for that reason it cannot compete with the trustworthy somewhere for which most people yearn. It is a release from place but not a replacement.24’24 Roger Scruton, Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (Bloomsbury, London, 2017).
As Oakeshott noted in an earlier excursion into the Babel myth in Rationalism in Politics, for an individual ‘it is a gamble which may have its rewards, when undertaken in a society not itself engaged in the gamble, it is mere folly’.2525 Scruton, Where We Are, 60.
The project of finding a shortcut to heaven is as old as the human race, and conduct that orients itself by ideology or rules is precisely an attempt at this kind of shortcut. Like the attempt to build a tower to heaven, people mistakenly believe that they may avoid the difficulties of life by engaging in a project in which the ends have been determined for them.
In our current case, these rules are set by a Commission pursuing ever closer Union. It explicitly pursues a future state of perfection, all the while neglecting the joys and sorrows of our present temporality. It substitutes the illusions of affairs for self-understanding. The truth is that a morality and a political project in this form, whatever the quality of its ideals, breeds nothing but distraction, as well as moral and ultimately political instability.2626 Scruton, Where We Are, 74. Chagrin ultimately awaits all those who embark upon such an endeavour.
- 1’1 Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Vol. 1 (London:
National Illustrated Library, 1852), preface.
- 22 Niall Ferguson, ‘Sorry, I was wrong to fight Brexit’, The Times (18 December 2017).
- 33 Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Vol. 1, 1918; Vol. 2, 1922). Translated into
English as The Decline of the West (London, 1926).
- 4’4 In R. L. Moore, The War on Heresy, Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London: Profile Books,
- 55 Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. The History of Half-forgotten Europe (London: Allen and Lane,
- 66 Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, 731–732.
- 77 Aristotle, The Politics (London: Allen and Lane, 1979). See particularly Book 5, 189; Plato, The
Republic, in The Portable Plato (London: Penguin, 1979), especially Book 8.
- 88 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah. An Introduction to History (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
- 9’9 Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, 258.
- 1010 Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, in On History and Other Essays (Oxford: Blackwell,
- 1111 Stefan Zweig, Messages from a Lost World. Europe on the Brink (London: Pushkin Press, 2016), 53.
- 1212 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 53.
- 1313 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 54.
- 1414 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 54.
- 1515 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 56.
- 1616 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58. See John Gray, ‘Foreword’, 27–28.
- 1717 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58.
- 1818 Zweig, Messages from a Lost World, 58.
- 1919 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 179–180.
- 2020 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 181.
- 2121 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 182.
- 2222 Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, 194.
- 23’23 Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’ (1948), in Rationalism in Politics and other essays (London:
Methuen, 1962), 61.
- 24’24 Roger Scruton, Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (Bloomsbury, London, 2017).
- 2525 Scruton, Where We Are, 60.
- 2626 Scruton, Where We Are, 74.