We know that Europe used to be almost always in a state of crisis. … The difference between a constant risk of crisis and the present situation, however, is that Europe had always retained a capacity for self-reflection, and thus for self-criticism, which was creative, so the successive crises were always overcome. Today Europe has lost this ability. Without constant self-criticism there will be no change, no growth, and no stability. The Europe-until-now is all but gone.
We can hardly imagine a future world without Europe, not as a leader perhaps, but as a provider of fundamental norms and standards binding us and the generations to come. Europe is our form of existence and we have no other. This is not so much a matter of choice as a fact. That’s why we don’t know what to do when Europe is becoming elusive, vanishing, weakening to the point of non-existence.
An intellectual and spiritual fear
Three answers have been most frequently given. The first one appeals for a return to time-tested policies, usually various forms of a welfare or social-democratic state.
The second type of answer, given by authors who are aware that the crisis is not only, and not mostly, economic in nature, urges political reforms. Most characteristic of those is the vision of federal Europe bound by strong internal ties. However, this nice vision is as old as Europe and has always proved fruitless. Its main flaw is that no European society wants a federal Europe, because such a Europe – provided it could be made real, which is unlikely – would be completely different from the one we consider, or used to consider, as the form of our existence.
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Finally, the third answer, most primitive albeit most widespread, is that when the economy recovers, so will the other important spheres of European life.
All these answers have one thing in common: they all seek solutions in the present. This is a line of reasoning that we often follow when in trouble. We wish to solve the issue here and now, possibly by using familiar means, but using them more effectively. …
We use familiar means not because we lack imagination or courage, but because we don’t know what else we could do. Come to think of it, one might say that Europe’s prevalent mood today is one of anxiety. This is not an anxiety about the possible collapse of a currency, but an intellectual and spiritual one. An acute fear of the shadows of the past and the looming threats of the future, which means that we start running around in circles, because choosing a way out requires a decision, which fear prevents us from ever making..
Present crisis was long seen coming
Four great splits in modern Europe’s spirituality and philosophy have led to the present state of helplessness. These are: religion and mystery as key to understanding the world versus religion as superstition; nationalism and the nation state versus universalistic values and practices; utilitarianism, that is a pursuit of pleasure, versus limited and reasonable goals adopted by individuals; and finally democracy, that is community, versus liberalism as an epitome of private freedom.
The present crisis was actually long seen coming. … Prudent economists realised that the public debt levels were unsustainable, that Greece had gone way too far, that virtually unregulated financial speculation would inevitably lead to a disaster.
The falling birth rate was no secret either, nor were imminent catastrophes in pensions, healthcare and education. It was also clear that the dispute between religion and the post-Enlightenment tradition would not die a natural death, that the decline of philosophy would undermine the quality of the humanities and human thought in general, that the domination of electronic media would result in such forms of political fighting as we witness today. All that was known, though politicians would often not listen, or be intellectually incapable of grasping those issues.
Any serious reaction would require making unpopular decisions, and this is something the actors of today’s democracy fear the most. Suffice it to say that the pension reforms recently introduced in virtually all European countries should have been introduced a decade ago to be successful. And that the EU experts in charge of education are pushing the European education sector towards replacing universities with vocational schools, demonstrating their utter failure to understand the fact that the humanities are based on philosophy, and the exact sciences on mathematics. These disciplines are least subsidised today.
Defining the common interest
What we saw, therefore, was not so much an inability to foresee as an unwillingness to do so. To make matters worse, numerous economists suggested purely technical methods of battling the crisis, methods that were not only economically unsuccessful but also, far more importantly, far from addressing its fundamental, spiritual and intellectual, causes.
After all, if four hundred Americans own as much wealth as the rest of the nation, then something is fundamentally wrong. I am not saying this to postulate socialist equality, but out of an elementary sense of decency. Democracies that have allowed this to happen have no reason to exist. As a fundamentally collective idea, democracy has to apply to all citizens of the given political organism. This means its nature must not be elitist, but also that it has to account for both individual- and collective-level irrationalism. Reconciling these themes requires either explaining to the democratic community what its collective interest is, or generating such a level of collective emotions where this interest is clear for all to see (this used to be called patriotism). Common interest, unlike common welfare, is great at uniting citizens despite their often conflicting views.
James Madison knew this perfectly well. But in order to define what common interest is we first need to understand what our group or particular interests are. We also need to be able to set priorities, that is, define a hierarchy of goals. Only the necessarily difficult consensus on such a hierarchy will facilitate a move forward that will be more than just a correction of the present condition. Today this is impossible.