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.

Reader Discussion

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on June 06, 2014 at 15:51:36 pm


Great article. I'm thinking that in the USA, the parties probably are more responsive to populist trends and are perhaps for that reason, so old. If so, we're likely to see one or both parties adapting to the new electorate than the emergence of a third populist party.

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David Upham
on June 06, 2014 at 17:17:07 pm

Lawler and Reinsch raise important questions. But in challenging the European Union for being both too much of a welfare state and being too libertarian, I can lose the thread of the argument.

1. The welfare state. The authors wrote:

The anti-EU uprising was predominately working class—meaning on the more modest side of the middle class. The most truthful economic explanation is that the global competitive marketplace has meant, for some, stagnating wages, the dearth of worthwhile work, and increasingly pathological family lives. The situation in America isn’t so different. The productive future is bright for the cognitive elite, but many or most people are becoming more marginally productive. This form of inequality may be mitigated in Europe by expansive welfare states, but not by as much as Americans often think. And for demographic reasons alone there’s no alternative here or there to trimming and reconfiguring what we call entitlements. No American, we hope, can praise class-based envy and resentment, except to say that the best antidote to envy is being satisfied with the life you have, and that means having what it takes in every way to take care of your own.

This paragraph is so unrelated to the rest of the essay, I can only surmise that the Weekly Standard inserts it into every essay it publishes.

Indeed, working class people throughout the developed world are seeing their circumstances eroding in the face of globalization. And this is related to the EU – how? Breaking up the EU would help this – how?

As the authors acknowledge, a “globalized meritocracy based on productivity” benefits the elite. And that’s great! The world has never been more productive! World income has never been higher!

Yet this has also eroded the circumstances of the developed world’s working class. So why now, when the world is finally designed to generate wealth like never before, should we start dismantling entitlements?

I see two options. Option One: The authors seem to favor having Europe break up into nation-states, and each of these oh-so-responsive states can then adopt protectionist policies in an effort to promote the interests of the working class within its borders. This will have the predictable effect of making everyone worse off. But at least the working-class Poles will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are suffering in solidarity with the rest of their countrymen – and not squandering their concerns on people on the other side of the border.

Option Two: People can confront adversity by banding together. We can embrace globalism and the greater wealth that it makes possible – and design policies to share that wealth with everyone. Everybody wins (relative to the world of isolation and protectionism)!

The US has NEVER relied solely on the market to distribute to benefits of capitalism. Throughout its history, the US has tampered with the distribution of wealth by adopted polices regulating taxation, bigamy, land distribution, public education, securities regulation, union organizing, minimum wage, workplace safety and workers’ compensation, antitrust, truth-in-labeling, truth-in-advertising, the G.I. Bill, civil rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA health services, Obamacare, etc. When people praise the US economy as an example of a “free market,” they are citing a highly managed market.

So I’m not suggesting anything radical here. To confront the great opportunities – and great inequalities – created by globalization, we simply need more of the same.

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on June 06, 2014 at 17:17:29 pm

2. The Libertarian state.
The bulk of the article criticizes the libertarian quality of the EU – its abstract, aloof, impersonal and un-parochial nature. I find this the more provocative argument.

Farage …. will be joined by other rising populist and nationalist parties from France, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands…. [T]hey all share a desire to defend the nation-state as a political form against the depoliticizing or deeply administrative “functional” transfer of authority and legitimacy to the bureaucrats in Brussels.

The French are tired of being pushed around by Brussels bureaucrats and long for the days of being pushed around by French bureaucrats?

Perhaps so. In short, maybe tribalism is more deeply ingrained that I like to imagine. Maybe the need for “the Public Romance” with government is intrinsic and intractable. Perhaps the libertarian model built on the concept of atomistic individuals simply fails to account for how people actually behave – or want to behave.

This provokes two questions. First, what is the optimal size for the state?

That civilized nation of shared customs, conventions, memories, loyalties, property and personal rights, generous tolerance, and moral and spiritual virtues is something more than the merely convenient contractual state described by Thomas Hobbes and something less than the omnicompetent state that emerged from the French Revolution.

Ok, but that leaves a pretty large range. What are the standards by which to judge? Over time people can develop memories, loyalties, etc., to pretty much any group, right?

And, in criticizing the EU, are the authors merely finding a politically correct way to refight the Civil War? Because if it’s too much to expect Germany and Austria to share a common government, what can we say about Alaska and Hawaii?

Second, what does an intrinsic tribalism mean for autonomy? Much of my autonomy depends upon having a state to facilitate it. And the state depends upon my taxes. But the authors suggest that the state may also depend upon my loyalty. To this end, it may be a state necessity to attract my loyalty through propaganda and rituals (e.g., the Pledge of Allegiance).

I often think of the state as a necessary evil; I acknowledge its role, but am wary of the state engaging in the practice of indoctrinating people into regarding the state and anything more than a useful tool to be employed or discarded as circumstances warrant. Patriotism and loyalty are for patsies and dupes. In contrast, the authors imply that the state has a functional role in engaging in some level of indoctrination. Patriotism and loyalty are necessary virtues to inculcate in society, because a society without those attributes will collapse when the times of trial come.

It suspect it’s all a matter of degree. But I’d like to find some better standard than that.

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on June 07, 2014 at 10:05:13 am

Goodness gracious! What is this obsessive fascination with strawmen that you have? Option #1 to your mind means that Europe will retreat back to the pre-Common Market days of protectionism. There is nothing to support that assertion.
The issue here is the overweening nature of the Euro state and not its economic regulations (although that does play a part), its attempts to eliminate national sentiment through which people have garnered an identity for several hundred years and its fostering of a "new world order" mentality.

As for option #2, rather than asserting that we need more of it, perhaps we can examine how both the nature, extent and delivery system of these "benefits" are the cause of the destruction of the developed world's working class. I could regale you with stories of "outsourcing" and the motivations (financial / regulatory primarily) that are responsible for much of the decline in working class wealth (having been actively engaged in it for a number of years) but it would probably not strike a resonant chord with you as you seem to applaud all that the "benefit state" has wrought; however, having had to dismiss many wonderful, productive people to meet the financial burdens placed upon a business by these same regulations, I can tell you that your thesis fails the empirical test.

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on June 07, 2014 at 10:51:40 am

" Patriotism and loyalty are for patsies and dupes".

Nicely said coming as it does on the 70th anniversary of D-Day!!!!!

Following sentences, which I suspect are an attempt at amelioration, are not sufficient to undo the foolhardiness of the earlier statement.

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on June 07, 2014 at 13:09:03 pm

Richard & Peter:

Oh, oh, do I detect some "front porch" sentiment here?

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on June 07, 2014 at 16:25:11 pm

There now being an interlude of 24 years from a long period of direct on the ground involvement in England and Europe with Europeans, It may be a bit presumptuous to opine on "populist" movements in Europe.

Nevertheless, however correct the views of the intelligentsia (cognitively elite), referenced in the article and this post, may be, they are distinct and differentiated from the views of the "populous," and the understanding of the latter of the motives for their own views.

The impact on the populous of migrations, not only amongst, but through, the various member states has been noted.

More important is the growing consciousness in the general population of the metastasis of an additional "State." That is, the embodying of epidemic authority in addition to, and separate from, national and regional authorities which have been derived from passive acceptance or active consent. The populous is more than vaguely aware of the arrogation of powers undertaken to exercise that epidemic authority; additional layers of interference and intrusions upon existing interference and intrusions into personal lives and relationships.

While it has been true that the expansions of ethnic and national states have displaced connectivities that previously shaped human relations, with intermediations and vicarious facilities that attempt to predetermine the nature of human relations, the rising public consciousness of further displacements from this additional source of claimed epidemic authority is now becoming manifest.

In all of the references to rights or entitlements, the need for the imposition of obligations upon some or all to secure such "rights or entitlements" to others, is omitted but, it is sensed and experienced by the populous in more and more detail and intensity as the authority of an additional "State" is exercised.

While all of the things that the scholars, thinkers and intelligentsia note may be entirely true, and of long range impact, the immediate sense of the populous is being shaped by actual experience.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on June 09, 2014 at 11:30:16 am

I gotta hand it to you guys--some very provocative comments from diverse points of view. Our answers would be pretty predictable, beginning with: We don't think patriotism is for dupes. Those imagine in some John Lennon way that it would be a better world if it withered away altogether are the dupes.

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Peter Augustine Lawler
on June 09, 2014 at 17:17:04 pm

In the light of this post, it would be informative to have the two of you expand upon the modes of expression of the Democratic Process; how the exercise of those differing modes demonstrates the relative evaluation of individual liberty (within a particular social order) by a particular populace (or electorate).

Of course, this raises the issue of whether you regard democracy as a condition or as a process (which by the modes of its exercise) determines various types of resultant conditions, with varying states of individual liberty and varying impacts on relationships.

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R Richard Schweitzer

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