Every age fathers its own illusions and in the postwar Europe there were plenty of opportunities. Europe’s threats were contained by America and its material needs glutted by a postwar recovery. It seemed as if the continent could carry on without the ordinary constraints of survival and it could indulge itself in a world where a cut off between means and ends, causes and effects was not only imaginable but also possible. Now the Europeans would not have to face any of the predicaments, make any sacrifices or contemplate any of the awful dilemmas of that previous time. We were to encounter a gentle reality where grave crises existed outside a diminishing European jurisdiction and where the mastery for dealing with these crises became superfluous.
On May 16, 1940 France surrendered to the Germans and as John Lukacs notes, for Winston Churchill that was “the most dreadful day of that most dreadful week, perhaps the most dreadful in Churchill’s whole career.” The fall of France was a very low point in a rather long series of anything but cheerful events. In the 1930s Churchill was consigned to the political wilderness as one of the few voices warning about the approaching threat. And all his efforts were in a political and intellectual environment where liberal democracy was expected to be left on the ash heap of history. Fascism and communism represented the future of mankind, democracy being an anachronism soon to eclipse. For Lukacs, Churchill represented “the incarnation of the resistance of an old world, of old freedoms, of old standards against a man [Hitler] incarnating a force that was frighteningly efficient, brutal and new.”
It took a particular kind of moral and political courage in these dark times to ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop’. “All my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial” Churchill wrote in his diary the day he became prime minister. He not only meant his political and military experience but also the history and the traditions of the West whose proud inheritor he considered himself. There were times that even he was doubtful about the future of liberal democracy but what he was indisposed to surrender was the will to defend it. It was this deeply felt loyalty to the western heritage of Churchill and many others, before and after him, that ensured the survival of Europe. For Isaiah Berlin, Churchill had a “feeling for and fidelity to the great tradition for which he assumes personal responsibility, a tradition which he bears upon his shoulders and must deliver, not only sound and undamaged but strengthened and embellished, to successors worthy of accepting the sacred burden.”
At the moment the most pressing question for Europe is how many of us feel that burden and how many of our leaders sense fidelity to that tradition. The Madrid bombings, the murder of Theo Van Gogh and the controversy over the Mohammed cartoons are all troubling evidence about the state of our civilizational morale. The mainstream reaction to all three ranged from a muted sadness to moral equivalence and outright justification. Often our defense of ourselves is nothing more than an exposition of our raison d’être, our fundamental values, of our understanding of who we are and our place in the world. In all three of the above cases Europe was inarticulate, aghast and dumbfounded. It had lost the ability to mount a defense of itself in the face of acts that contravened its most basic principles. This response was the outcome of a long and laborious intellectual effort to divest Western civilization of any moral authority.
In 1978 Michel Foucault visited Iran as special correspondent for Corriere della Sera and Le Monde. Foucault was very enthusiastic about what was going on. He called Ayatollah Khomeini “a kind of mystic saint” and as for the revolution “Islam – which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization – has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.” The Islamists represented the “perfectly unified collective will” which would hopefully turn to be an alternative to liberal democracy which Foucault considered “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.”
For the European intellectual class the enemy has always been one and the same. It is the one menace with the many names, liberal democracy, capitalism, West, European. Jean Paul Sartre said that “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.” One could find countless other examples of such vitriol. There is only one appropriate posture towards Western civilization and that is unambiguous hostility. Civilizations come and go but what will be unique about us is the degree and depth of our self-hatred. Perhaps, in an age where everything is overanalyzed and refined to the utmost degree self-hatred could not be the exception. Another explanation maybe, as William Hazlitt noted, that hate is simply an easier feeling to come and sustain.
Disdainful of the past, cynical about the present and only hopeful for a radically different future the European intellectual recommends a new man; A man whose worth is measured by the degree of his marginalization and hostility to the western culture. Who can only create by destroying and who is prepared to make the ultimate choice of self-annihilation. Who is so distant and antagonistic to his own culture that the only reasonable option remaining is that of embracing another.
It is in this culturally depleted environment that Islamic fundamentalism has found such fertile soil. The terrorists responsible for the bombings in London were not some foreign born fanatics. They were born and raised in Britain, a prosperous country with low unemployment and plenty of opportunities for everyone. None of the four terrorists found anything compelling in a society with a long tradition of open and stable democratic institutions; nothing compelling about a nation that gave the world Shakespeare, free trade and soccer. When the four young men looked at the world the choice was obvious. They would choose Islamofascism over democracy, fanaticism over moderation and death over life. Ken Livingston, the mayor of London, a few days after the bombings said on a BBC interview that “I think you’ve just had 80 years of western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the western need for oil” and that “[a] lot of young people see the double standards, they see what happens in Guantanamo Bay, and they just think that there isn't a just foreign policy.”
Behind any transgression there is always the western culprit. This self-flagellation and self-incrimination has become the lingua franca of the European political and intellectual elites. Jacques Barzun has noted that “modern attempts at genocide were ignobly intellectual: the kulaks’ existence contradicted the theory of Communism, and the German victims were ‘racially harmful’ to the nation.” And so it may that the end of Europe is first an intellectual downfall. We catapulted our intellectual diatribes against the liberal foundations of Europe and now we wait for the walls to come crushing down.
What would have been surprising in all this is the acquiescence of the European middle class. The common man with a down to earth judgment is usually the first and last resistance to such a decline. But in the postwar recovery Europe was able to build the universal welfare state, which in turn shaped a new political ethos for the middle class. In this political environment of the welfare state the range and nature of political questions for the wider public are limited to bread and butter issues. In many European countries there is a sizable and growing number of Muslims usually resentful and sometimes even hostile to their host country. Within that group there is a determined minority of fanatics who are willing to use any violent means to impose their worldview upon the continent. But it seems that the only ‘intruder’ that can rouse the European public is the image of the Polish plumber.
The advocates of the welfare state have always insisted that laissez-faire is not only harmful economically but that it also breeds a man too selfish and too indifferent to other human beings and to issues of common concern. The welfare state would create a new man, curious and caring, aware of his interdependence to other people, involved and active in the community he is a part of. Like a good many other expectations about the welfare state this has come to a naught as well. In the political economy of the welfare state an ethic of something-for-nothing takes hold. There are rights without obligations, actions without consequences and benefits without costs. It’s the world of everlasting adolescence where trade-offs, grim choices and stern outcomes never materialize. One may live as he pleases as long as he’s willing to legislate so.
Some time ago, during the demonstrations about the ‘first job contact’ in France, a statistic became ubiquitous in the news reports: three quarters of the French youth aspire for a job in government bureaucracy. High unemployment and the insecurity it generates are a main factor to this choice being made by so many young men. But there is something else to be said about the fact that the vast majority of young people in France desire a career whose often main contribution is increased red tape and public debt.
Government bureaucracies, especially bloated ones, have an unparalleled freedom to define the scope and limits of their role and authority; a freedom to ‘produce’ goods and services of their own choosing at their own chosen prices. It’s not an unlimited freedom but it’s a freedom that any private monopoly could only dream of. From this environment of ironclad job security, onerous benefits, light workloads and early retirements emanate the most self-serving occupations. The young people of France demand those careers without any moral or intellectual reservations. Often this choice is viewed as morally superior to a career in the private sector. This prejudice, where the tax consumer is considered the moral superior to the tax producer is a unique achievement of the welfare state, and representative of the most insidious effect of the welfare state. It is feared that the welfare state might crowd out philanthropy and good works. That may be true but the more important effect is that it gradually corrupts and alters the meaning of caring, benevolence and common good. It is an Orwellian dystopia where taking is giving and selfishness is altruism.
The European middle class has given up ‘wedge issues’ in exchange for a dependency on a zero sum economy of diminishing returns and expectations. It has become culturally and politically enervated unable yet to resist the ominous milieu hatched by its political and intellectual elites.
TODAY, AND TODAY, AND TODAY
Presently in Europe there is a feeling of unease and uncertainty; a feeling of being recklessly abandoned by reality. A dread about what tomorrow may bring. If we examine it we shall see where it originates. There is a chasm between Winston Churchill and Ken Livingston. Is not the chasm that separates the dead and the living but one based on a false assumption: that we may live in a liberal world without a liberal civilization. Modern Europe is an experiment on that assumption and the consequences of it become more evident by the day. We have chosen to live for today, and today only, without any regard to what brought us here and what accounts for all the good things in life. We think that we may go on chipping away at the foundations of our society and things will remain the same. It is not an assumption that Churchill would make and it is not the assumption that would have enabled him to withstand the grave crises of his time. Our willingness to shed this illusion will determine if what we face today is one of Europe’s momentous crises or the beginning of the end.