From the Atlantic to the former Soviet empire’s borders, from North Cape to the Mediterranean, the past half-century’s political order is ending. The outward signs are unmistakable. The U.S. establishment views them as problems manageable by redoubled U.S. efforts to preserve something like the status quo.
But the Old Europe of the past half-century was unsustainable, and its problems transcend day-to-day political choices, much less foreign policy. Its ruling class, adrift on events, lacks a civilizational anchor. At best, American statesmanship can lessen the consequences to ourselves of Europe’s decay—above all, by not imitating it. The former Soviet empire’s European domains, whose people long for a long-lost Europe, are in a different category.
Dramatic events divert our attention from the roots that make Old Europe’s problems intractable. In short, countries such as France, Germany, Italy, even Great Britain, that we had imagined to be fixtures of nature, are ceasing to command allegiance for collective action of the peoples who live within their borders. For practical purposes, they are ceasing to exist.
Symptoms of a Lost Will to Live
Muslim subcultures spread like ink-spills within them. Germany reports mass rapes by Muslims, as less forthright countries hide them. Razor wire spreads from Scandinavia to the Balkans. Paris and Brussels lock down as police scurry about the continent without answers to terrorism. Most of the Eurozone’s economies live on money borrowed from central bank printing presses as young people seek their future elsewhere.
As bureaucratic elites of what had been the Left and Right coalesce to defend their privileged positions, “Grand Coalitions” become Europe’s political model and issue declarations no one believes. Meanwhile, peoples turn to various kinds of political revolt—but mostly to despondency.
The factors that are moving Old Europe to the verge of non-existence have been all too clear for a long time. Demographic trends, too few young workers, too many old or on welfare; the double whammy of bureaucratically hidebound economies that reduce opportunities for the young are dooming Europe’s economies. All this has been acknowledged and decried for more than a generation. Nevertheless, these trends continue to intensify because they are so deeply rooted.
Nor is it news that Europe’s birth dearth—at current rates, Europe’s active-age population will drop by half within this century—matches ominously the Muslim world’s desire to migrate northward, or that European peoples lack the moral capacity forcibly to shut their borders or to affirm their way of life within them. This always guaranteed that millions of Muslims would arrive as migrants to fill the physical and moral spaces Europeans leave vacant.
Terrorism clinched the case against Europe’s political order. It showed Europeans that losing their way of life would be neither gentle nor gradual. When, in the face of attack by the Muslim world’s violent vanguard, Europe’s ruling class showed its incapacity to provide the elemental sense of safety, it forfeited whatever remained of the people’s faith that it could ensure the future could be more or less like the past. Now all know that it won’t be.
Rejecting the Ruling Class
In sum, while Europe’s ruling class pretends its expertise ensures perpetual prosperity and equality, it presides over economies founded on ever-shakier mountains of debt and stratified between those who are well connected to the system and others who have little hope of breaking into it. The peoples whom it had persuaded to well-nigh stop reproducing, to no longer differentiate themselves from others; whom they had convinced this would guarantee somnolent lives of vacations and retirements, now tremble with fear for their way of life and for life itself.
If Europe’s political system is rotten and its peoples are disaffected from it, why don’t they change it? It is a commonplace that, especially since the European Union’s maturation in the 1990s, Europe suffers from what is politely called a “democratic deficit.” In fact, with few exceptions, European governments have been “administrative states,” ruled by decrees, since the seventeenth century. The European Union lengthened the traditional distance between Europeans and their governments by more notches.
Moreover, during the past generation the main political parties have been coalescing into a single ruling class. But this is not the result of the proportional representation electoral systems that traditionally foster coalition governments. Even in France, whose constitution and electoral system were designed specifically to force choices between clearly defined alternatives, the socialist and conservative parties routinely sidestep institutions by acting so that, in any given constituency, only one of them will face the opposition to them both, the National Front.
This is paradigmatic of what is happening all over: as traditional politicians coalesce (e.g., Germany’s Christian Democrats with Socialists and Italy’s Democratic Party with Forza Italia) they spread responsibility to all “respectable” persons for what is and is not being done. By Newtonian reaction, this has raised up opposition movements that, by definition, are not “respectable” but that become the alternative to a ruling class that answers its own failures with inertia.
This Doesn’t Break Down to Left Versus Right
These movements (Germany’s and England’ nationalists, Italy’s five-stars) cannot be understood properly as being of the Right or of the Left. France’s National Front, for its part, has one face that appeals to former Communists, and another that appeals to Catholics. What all these movements have in common is thoroughgoing rejection of Europe’s Liberal/Socialist ruling class.
Our habit of characterizing politics as struggles between Right and Left casts as much shadow as light on what is happening in Europe. Yes, Europe’s public life, prescribed as it is by central expert bureaucracies, is vintage progressivism/socialism and hence quintessentially of the Left.
It is also true, as the French socialist Gael Brustier writes, that as Europe’s ruling class faced the failure of its projects it did not make a serious effort to justify itself according to its core beliefs but “abandoned and refused the cultural battle.” Instead, it tried to quash opposition by imposing political correctness.
But Brustier, author of “A Demain Gramsci” (2015), distinguishes between crude efforts to shut down or de-legitimize criticism and victory in the battle of ideas. Hence he writes that, “while the Left won elections, the Right won minds.” Fact is, however, that opposition to Europe’s ruling class is coming from all sides and for all manner of reasons, and that labeling it of “the Right” makes no sense.
Nor do the movements for the autonomy or independence of some of the principal regions that now constitute Old Europe’s states fit within traditional political categories. Nevertheless, Spain’s Catalans and Basques, Italy’s Northerners, Britain’s Scots and English, both sides of Belgium, etc. want out of current arrangements they feel do not serve them. No one is going to stop them by force.
In practice, the various opposition movements, regardless of what motivated their birth, regardless of whether they focus their anger on the ruling class’s stewardship of economics or on its complicity with Muslim migration, guarantee Europe a politics of disaffection and impotence, if not of revolution.
In sum, as Old Europe’s peoples face socio-economic collapse, alien invasion, and terrorism, neither the ruling class nor the oppositions ask why all that they had supposed solid turned out to be fragile, what they are doing to make their problems intractable, how they would have to change for things to be different.
Why Can’t We Get Out of This Rut?
The reason few among those whose civilization is collapsing speak or think in moral and political terms adequate for dealing with the collapse is the collapse itself: the absence (rejection or abandonment) of ideas and habits by which peoples had dealt with problems in the past and might do so now.
When we ask to what extent Europe still wants to be itself, we tend to forget the prior question, namely: What made Europe mistress of itself and imitable, and how does contemporary Europe differ? Today’s European elites leave no doubt that their Europe (e.g., as defined by the Giscard d’Estaing commission that drew up the preamble to the EU constitution) is a thing of their own creation—a model for universal humanity that has nothing to do with Christianity and whose relationship with the Europe of past centuries, or even decades, is vague and even embarrassing.
This has been coming for a long time. In “The Old Regime And The Revolution,” Alexis de Tocqueville describes how Europe’s monarchies (Britain’s partially excepted) had already subordinated Western civilization’s essential aspects. Directly negating Christianity and natural law, they claimed divine right to rule as well as to define right and wrong.
The kings also supplanted peoples’ natural patriotism with allegiance to themselves. Their bureaucrats flooded the land with regulations. The states that followed the French Revolution made themselves into secular gods more thoroughly than had the monarchies. Only in America did revolutionaries affirm Western civilization’s bedrock right of people to live by “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
People Want More than Trains
Europe’s nineteenth-century states set themselves up for disaster by addling Western civilization’s virtues. Glory over other Europeans and conquest of inferior peoples became the practical meaning of goodness. Righteousness, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, even piety—all became relative to that.
The administrative states that spread from Napoleonic France to the rest of Europe were based on the Hegelian notion that the state is the embodiment the human spirit, whose progress creates all reality, beginning with itself. They were held together by the presumption that the bureaucrats who made the rules were meritocratic dispensers of scientific wisdom, as well as by ever-more ardent nationalism. This is the parody of Western civilization that drowned in blood in 1914-18.
Because Europe’s post-World War I ruling class rejected that parody’s muscular substance while expanding its model of governance, the government of European states has been an ever-greater factor in its subjects’ lives while ever less able to argue why they should obey. Mussolini’s fascists, the last to try resuscitating the pure Hegelian argument for the state’s primacy, ended up with the banal claim that they had made the trains run on time.
This does not differ from the model Jean Monnet’s Euro-technocrats first advanced in the 1920s, namely, that efficiency in distributing society’s economic goods is all at which government can and should aim, and all it needs to command respect.
By governing this way for most the post-World War II era, Europe’s states, and then the EU, set bounds to hundreds of millions of European minds and hearts. Does Europe want to be itself? Of course it does. But that self is congenitally impotent to understand itself and why, far from satisfying the highest human aspirations, it failed in its own terms. Europe’s socio-economic “trains” are not running “on time.”
Today’s Europe finds today’s realities intractable because, according to its ruling mentality, they should not exist. “It is not possible that our systems for economic regulation and social welfare have become engines by which some live off the work of others. Our modern ethical education prevents this.” No, it does not.
“All those Muslims and other ‘Third World’ peoples on whom the most progressive among us have lavished so much kindness cannot possibly be invading, intimidating, and terrorizing their benefactors.” Oh, yes, they are. “Our governments will find solutions to our problems consistent with our values.” They are not and cannot.
Moreover, since virtually no one proposes to base social welfare on big families rather than on government, or to ditch modern relativistic morality for what used to be taught in churches, any more than anyone is willing to use force to prevent peoples of different cultures from settling in Europe, the Europeans are pretty sure to keep tossing and turning in the bed that they have made for themselves.
What Is This to Americans?
The Europe with which American statesmen have dealt until our own time now belongs to history as much as does Periclean Athens or the Roman Republic. As Old Europe morphs by fits and starts into a shrinking theme park, its importance will diminish further in every category. Nothing can re-produce the likes of Churchill and De Gaulle or, more important, the character of the peoples who followed them. Hence, the sooner Americans learn to make lemonade from the lemons that history is delivering, the likelier it is that we may realize U.S. foreign policy’s limited possibilities.
It has been a half-century since Europe initiated anything that deeply concerned the rest of the world, and a quarter-century since either Russia, China, or the United States needed to take it seriously. Old Europe’s growing domestic incoherence increasingly precludes opportunities to add the weight of what used to be France, Britain, etc., never mind Europe as a whole, to American projects.
By the same token, however, Americans need worry less about lack of support or about opposition from those quarters. But political fragmentation offers opportunities to influence Europeans on a retail basis. The English, the Lombards, the Catalans, the Bavarians, or maybe National Front or the Spanish “Ciudadanos,” might be more willing to see things America’s way than whatever faction briefly occupies the roost in London, Rome, Madrid, or Berlin.
Americans will also have to rediscover the art of diplomacy vis a vis multi-party coalitions. Where governments suffer from “democratic deficits,” public diplomacy is useful—especially to blunt opposition.
Invite Yearning Europeans Here
But Europe’s socio-political implosion is significant for America’s own internal well-being. Millions of Europeans now find themselves in an environment that precludes their talents’ development and that no longer satisfies their moral needs. More and more, especially the young and talented, seek to move.
Between 1620 and 1965, tens of millions of such Europeans made the United States of America what it is. With apology to Emma Lazarus, these (though often poor) were not “tired,” much less “wretched refuse.” Rather, they were the Old World’s live wires, the ones most eager to work, to learn, and to embrace what it meant to become Americans. Now, as Old Europe deteriorates, the number of European would-be Americans is sure to multiply. They represent a bounty of talent, of allegiance and refreshment of America’s cultural roots such as we have not enjoyed for a half-century.
Whether we take advantage of it depends on how well we understand what Europe is doing to itself, and on how serious we are about not inflicting the same fate on ourselves. In recent years, Americans have begun to realize that, in fact, our own ruling class tries as best it can to follow the same socio-economic course as does Old Europe’s. Limited by America’s circumstances, our ruling class also has sought out the same kinds of migrants that now threaten to swamp Europe while reducing the number of traditional European immigrants to near zero.
Welcoming the refugees from Old Europe’s implosion would mean recognizing that the reason they want to leave is that the Euro-American ruling class’s idea of the good life—private as well as public—is dysfunctional. It would mean that the American people are determined to hold fast to the peculiarly American ways by which we have thrived since the nation’s founding.
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