Cultural confidence and the liberal death wish
February 24, 2013
At the end of my studies, back in the fifties of the last century, I thought of writing a thesis on “the anti-democratic intellectual.” The Cold War was then still very much in full swing, and many intellectuals had gone to the Soviet Union. Instead I went to East Africa to sell oil. But the subject stayed with me.
After a life full of activity, I decided to write a book on the lure of ideology in politics from which the fellow travelers of communism seemed to have suffered. Usually this sort of subject is written about by intellectuals. I am more of a politician, so my experience and perspective are different.
Intellectuals are people who are interested in abstract ideas. Some may be about the arts or sciences, religion or culture, others about politics. In the case of politics, such ideas are eventually communicated to the public. Three elements – abstract ideas, politics, and communication – combine to form what is known as the “public intellectual.”
Not all ideas of public intellectuals are valuable. Far from it. For ideas to have value they must be based upon and capable of being tested by experience. The people that promoted the Russian revolution did not have a clue as to what should happen afterwards. According to Sorel, Marx had once said that anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary. “First we’ll destroy and then we’ll see,” was the slogan. Some of the wilder enthusiasts of the cultural revolution of 1968 thought the same.
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the great political treatises have been written after the authors had turned fifty. Most young people – and nearly all young intellectuals – have not had the opportunity to acquire experience. It is therefore likely that their political ideas have little value, particularly if they are of a general nature.
Youth is naturally inclined to the romantic, which has had a disastrous effect on politics. Rousseau was a romantic. His Social Contract foreshadowed totalitarianism; as he wrote, “Whoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.” It is remarkable how much revolutionary movements have relied on youth. Gregor Strasser, leader of the left-wing Nazis, said: “Out of the way, old men” (Macht Platz, ihr Alten). The Italian Fascist movement appealed to giovinezza. In 1968 a slogan was: “Do not trust anyone over forty.”
But then look at the young people in revolt in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt: their ideas are of a general nature. Are they valueless? No, there is a difference: these people have had a lot of experience of dictatorship (although it remains to be seen whether those revolutions will prove beneficial, and provide a lasting peace).
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the state has intervened deeply in society. The domain of politics has thereby become much more extensive. Also, the mass media now play a very important role. It is, in fact, difficult to think of public intellectuals apart from the media. These two developments, along with the broadening accessibility of higher education, have caused a great increase in the numbers of public intellectuals. But words are like money, in that they often suffer from inflation. Today, few individual public intellectuals are heard. But, collectively, they make an incessant din, amplified by a barrage of opinion polls. And with whom do public intellectuals associate? Other (public) intellectuals. They often form an in-crowd susceptible to hype, captivated by appealing ideas rather than sound ones, and with a predilection for trumpeting catastrophes.
The ideas of public intellectuals may be dangerous, particularly if they are of a general nature and untested or in principle untestable by experience – in other words, if they are not merely ideas but are ideologies. I now want to illustrate this danger by offering sketches of three areas of political interest that correspond to at least three ideologies: the continuing integration of the European Union (driven by a cult of centralization), the treatment of immigrant communities in Western democracies (driven by a bankrupt multiculturalism), and Europe’s vanishing self-confidence in its own culture (driven by an errant, anti-imperialistic sentimentalism).
The European Union and the dream of centralization
The European Union is of great importance to us all. Its proudest achievement is the internal market. But now the EU is on the wrong track, and its actions are excessive. If it does not stop this excess it will come to serious harm. A premonition was given by the Dutch public, which a few years ago voted with a two-thirds majority against the erroneously styled European “Constitution.”
Let me turn to the European Parliament as a case in point: it lives in a federal fantasy. Everywhere it wants “more Europe.” Sometimes that is necessary, but more often it is not. The citizens of Europe, moreover, are skeptical. Parliament is legitimate since it has been elected by due process. But it is scarcely representative, because it is usually out of tune with the citizens of Europe. For instance, the European Parliament wants more money from member states at a time when every minister of finance has to scrape the bottoms of his coffers. This by itself makes it clear how isolated from reality Parliament is. It forgets that it can find money in its present budget. Of the Regional Fund, for example, only a small part is spent. The same thing goes for the Cohesion Fund. Also, a part of the Common Agricultural Fund may be repatriated. A critical evaluation of the EU’s budget would yield quite significant financial slack, should the will to do so be there.
As for the European Commission, it consists of 27 members, one for each member state. This is too many; some commissioners have only half a day’s work, if that. But all want to become famous. Their only way to stardom is to take initiatives, needed or not. The only remedy for this excess of initiatives is to reduce the Commission to the number needed to run the daily executive of the EU – to no more than twelve. Where should they come from? The EU has large member states and small ones. The large member states are Germany, the UK, and France, followed by Italy, Spain, and Poland. They all deserve a permanent seat. That leaves six seats for the smaller member states. How to distribute these would then be up for discussion.
Now, about the Monetary Union. It was born because France and Germany wanted it. But these two countries pursued different aims. France wanted political influence on the European Central Bank. That will always remain its aim. Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted a European political union and was prepared to offer the D-Mark in order to achieve that. Both French and German aims were dependent on the pursuit of a practically endless centralization, and both were frustrated.
But these different aims have left vestiges in the views of France and Germany. France wants important economic decisions to be taken by politicians with the practical consequence that fiscal imbalances would be distributed over surplus and deficit countries, and that the ECB would facilitate this. Germany wants fundamental economic decisions to be laid down in the Treaty itself: an independent ECB, priority for price stability, budgets in equilibrium, and no bail-outs.
These different views have been papered over but not reconciled. Nor is it likely that they ever will be; independent ECB or not, both depend on a common solution – a centrally-coordinated solution – for all of Europe. This is a congenital defect. It is thus to be expected that after this current crisis has disappeared, further (and worse?) crises will occupy the minds of our successors.
Immigration and multiculturalism
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared multiculturalism bankrupt. He is far from the first to say so. Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel has said the same thing. In fact, some years ago, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, pleaded against multiculturalism, since it no longer stood for diversity but rather for segregation. So yes, the doctrine of multiculturalism is on the way out. But what precisely has multiculturalism meant? Let me distinguish two aspects of the politics of multiculturalism: the debate over essential values and group-differentiated rights.
The matter of essential values is relatively easy. I wrote about this in a leading Dutch newspaper in September 1991. There I said that in the Netherlands we live in a free society in which people could behave as they pleased, but that there were certain essential values which all should observe and which were non-negotiable: freedom of speech and religion, equality between men and women and before the law, and the separation of church and state. This means that the practices of certain immigrants are unacceptable, such as the sexual mutilation of girls and honor killings.
The second aspect is group-differentiated rights. Listen to Bikhu Parekh, professor of political philosophy at the University of Westminster, who wrote the following in an article on multiculturalism in 1999: “The political community must value all its members equally and reflect this in its policies: group-differentiated rights, culturally differentiated application of laws, state support for minority institutions and a judicious programme of affirmative action.” The crucial term here is “group-differentiated rights.” These have also been advocated by Jutta Limbach, who presided over the German federal constitutional court between 1994 and 2002. She says the German Basic Law makes no mention of a duty to “protect and foster the cultural identity of an ethnic or religious minority.” Yet she asserts that this is what should happen.
These views must be firmly resisted because they oppose integration and foster apartheid. As Prime Minister Cameron has said: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives. … We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” So no group-differentiated rights. The individual who becomes a citizen owes allegiance to his new country and should not be entitled to a separate legal status as member of a particular community.
Europe’s cultural confidence and an errant anti-imperialism
It seems Western Europe has lost confidence in its own civilization. In its modern form, the noble Western tradition of self-assessment and self-criticism is often corrupted into sentimental self-flagellation. Let me mention some examples.
Many people appear to think that Africa’s underdevelopment has been caused by the West. The simple assertion that the problems of “Third World” countries are due to colonial-era imperialism is the result of a facile analysis that attributes our wealth to their poverty, and vice versa. It is one of the sentiments underlying development aid. But the question to ask is not: Why are poor countries poor? The right question is: Why are wealthy countries rich? After all, in the beginning we were all poor.
Whoever wants to study the rise of the West should go back to the Renaissance, if not to classical antiquity. Colonialism has very little to do with it. European colonizers came late to the Middle East, which for centuries was ruled – i.e. colonized – by the Ottomans. The interior of most of Africa was inaccessible to Europeans until late in the nineteenth century, in no small part because of fear of disease. It is of course true that the colonial powers often brutally exploited the local populations; this cannot be forgotten. But, with respect to the trajectory of economic and cultural development, colonial-era Europe is no more responsible for the underdevelopment of Africa than Rome was for the underdevelopment of Gaul.
Many people also have sympathy with the predicament of the Palestinian people. That is understandable, because their situation is indeed pitiful. But who bothers about the lot of Christians in the Middle East? Their situation is equally pitiful, if not more so. The Christian minorities in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan are discriminated against, often slaughtered; tragically, almost no Christians remain in Iraq, where there has been a Christian presence almost as long as there has been Christianity. In Somalia the Islamists hunt down anyone in possession of a Bible. No one seems to get excited about these crimes. These minorities rightly feel deserted.
Another example concerns public holidays. The European Commission recently had three million school calendars published. They mention Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays, but not Christian ones. One wonders what the EU is publishing school calendars for in the first place, but for that matter see above.
The nineteenth century saw the high tide of imperialism. Europe was then brimming with confidence – too much, in fact. Some sort of humbling was surely in order. But what has happened since then? The last century witnessed the cataclysm of the First World War, the rise of collectivist dictatorships during the inter-war years, WWII and the Shoa, Stalinism, and the cultural confusion of ’68. These events – and the doctrine of multiculturalism – have eroded all certainties. But there is more.
We live in a civilization that has been deeply marked by Christianity, in which the emphasis on humility and the recognition of human guilt has always played a central role. With respect to cultural confidence, these have left noticeable vestiges. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (According to Nietzsche, this constituted a slave mentality. If there is no God, he might be right.) Now listen to Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion.” The chorus sings: “I shall be punished for what you (i.e., Christ) have suffered.” Formerly, the various Christian denominations were able not only to provide theological explanations for guilt, but also to give Europe the ritual, moral, and communal outlets for dealing with it: confession, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, all embedded in a liturgical and cultural context. But this context is now mostly unconvincing to contemporary Europeans outside of Poland and perhaps Ireland. With the contemporary evacuation of the Christian content of our society, our guilt has shifted from personal morality to politics. In politics, the mote in Europe’s eye is thought heavier than the beam abroad.
It is these matters which explain Europe’s lack of self-confidence and its desire to avoid troubling Islamic sensitivities. These plus intimidation. When Utrecht University theologian Pieter van der Horst wanted to devote his 2009 valedictory address to “The Islamisation of European anti-Semitism,” the university forbade it due to its fear of Islamic displeasure of both the peaceful and less peaceful sort.
Of all these ills, the lack of cultural confidence will be decisive. For, afflicted by it, those who might take a stand are instead cowed into a misguided humility. They will have nothing positive to strive for and nothing real to build. It will be left to the architects of other ideologies – centralization, or the hostile ambitions necessarily tolerated by multiculturalism – to do so.
Lastly: Who actually shares in this lack of self-confidence? Is it shared by all or just by an intellectual elite? Probably it started with the elite but has by now trickled down into general bourgeois culture. After all, it was the intelligentsia that encouraged secularization and invented multiculturalism. They were the first to be what we are all rapidly becoming.
Mr. Bolkestein is a writer and former European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Taxation and the Customs Union (1999–2004). He also served as the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade (1982-6), Minister of Defence (1986-8) and Chairman of the Liberal Party (VVD). This article is an abridged version of a lecture given at All Souls College, Oxford University, on May 27, 2011. It has been reprinted with the author’s kind permission.