Populism in Europe, Properly Understood

I link to an essay Peter Lawler and I have written now published in the current print edition of the Weekly Standard. We thought it worthwhile to sift through the good and the bad of the populist uprising against the EU. My fundamental conviction is that the EU is a political abstraction oriented to the interests of a meritocratic elite. Members of this cohort rule Europe without substantive accountability or political representation. As we say in the essay, the EU is a technocracy more than it is a democracy. The EU’s ruling class inspires no love or loyalty among Europeans for EU institutions. So a political reckoning, however long delayed and denied, will occur. The question is if it has already started, and the recent drubbing taken by mainstream parties in the UK and France, among other states, is an indication that it has.

A strong tendency, with some evidence, is to sweepingly dismiss as racist or xenophobic the political parties in Europe that want to bring the EU low. But maybe the better question is to ask what’s the truth of these movements within the UK, France, Belgium, Austria, among others? Is there something about the connection between the nation-state and its provision for the free and relational person that is superior to the EU’s seeming dismissal of the concerns of a large cross-section of Europeans? As such, is something more fundamental at stake than mindless hostility to international trade and immigration that drove the strong showings of populist-oriented parties in the recent EU Parliament elections? I look forward to your thoughts.

An excerpt:

UKIP’s victory may one day be viewed as the moment when the post-political fantasy that is the EU began its retreat. The disembodied abstraction that is the emerging European state seems mainly to serve the interests of a globalized meritocracy based on productivity. For many ordinary Europeans, wages are stagnating or declining, worthwhile work is scarce, and it’s impossible to connect one’s self-interest with the alleged benefits of being European—as opposed to being British or French.

Pierre Manent, the most profound of the Euroskeptical philosophers (and no populist), has long argued that the depoliticizing European “human rights” project is animated by a hatred of bodies. Relational beings with bodies find their homes, their security, their personal significance, and truthful self-understandings through participation in strong, stable institutions. These include the nation understood as a political community with shared memories, loyalties, culture, and virtues. They also include the family and the church understood as an organized body of thought and action. It’s a fantasy to believe that people could flourish in a world where they’re understood as autonomous persons and not as citizens, creatures, parents, children, and so forth.

Disembodied Europe (the EU has no definite boundaries), we can see, is incapable of defending itself or even generating enough children to perpetuate itself. It is a fantasy to believe that it can have a future without some dependence on the love and loyalty of citizens who are more than citizens. The truth is that it is a fantasy to believe that the universal human rights shared by all autonomous beings could be the foundation of a new world order, even if it is an understandable reaction to the cruel, ideological utopianism of 20th-century totalitarians—that free persons could be reconstituted as citizens (or comrades) and nothing more. Both extremes depend on unrealistically abstracting from the multifaceted truth about who each of us as a free and relational being really is.

It turns out, of course, that extremes are typically more similar than they first appear. The ideology of both the EU and the Leninists (who, of course, descended from the French revolutionaries) is that nothing stands between the solitary person and the state. In one case the state is understood as ministerial to the comfortably unfettered existence of the person, and in the other the citizen is understood to be fodder for the state’s glorious historical future. In both cases, ideology denies the truth about personal identity and personal significance.

Roger Scruton—England’s most accomplished conservative since Edmund Burke and, like Manent, a longstanding Euroskeptic—has written that both the “U.N. Charter of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights belong to the species of utopian thinking” and aren’t so different from what Marx wrote about the withering away of the state. Those charters imagine that a regime that effectually secures rights could be “without history, without prior attachments, without any of the flesh-and-blood passions that make government so necessary in the first place.” That means, of course, that the promotion of an “enlightened internationalism” opposed to all “local chauvinism” and repudiating all claims to loyalty for “inheritance and home” assumes we are or can become ghosts and angels. One problem among many, of course, is that, whatever we might imagine, relational beings with bodies moved by ambition, love, hate, animosity, death, and so forth will remain. And ghosts can’t protect us from whatever and whoever threatens those we know and love.