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A struggle for ideals

April 20, 2016 - Matthew Kott - Discussion

M Kott bw

In early 1916 a book of lectures by a Swedish professor of politics, Rudolf Kjellén, was published as Die Ideen von 1914. Reflecting on contemporary events, Kjellén argued that it was time to reject the individualistic, cosmopolitan and morally confused liberal order that had brought the nations of Europe to conflagration. Instead of freedom (liberté), equality (égalité) and brotherhood (fraternité) – the discredited “ideas of 1789” which, in the liberal interpretation, promoted a selfish, permissive, universalist mindset – Europeans should embrace the ideals of order (Ordnung), justice (Gerechtigkeit) and duty (Pflicht). Freedom, equality and brotherhood were to be subsumed into the new ideas of 1914, which for the radical conservative Kjellén represented a kind of Hegelian synthesis, rather than merely being the antitheses of the deprecated ideas of 1789. The society Kjellén viewed as most representative of these new ideals was Wilhelmine Germany, on whose side he hoped Sweden would enter the war.

It may be tempting to dismiss such ideas from a century ago as irrelevant for the situation in Europe, particularly its east, today. Nevertheless, Kjellén has left his mark: geopolitics – a term he coined – is something that is perennially discussed with regards to Eastern Europe, more so since the crisis in Ukraine began. Echoes of Kjellén’s attack on liberal individualism, permissiveness and decadence can also to be found in a variety of present-day expressions. Viktor Orbán’s ambition to create an illiberal state in Hungary is the clearest example, but the current government in Poland – appropriately named the Law and Justice (PiS) party – also leans heavily in the same ideological direction. Latvia’s National Alliance brings to the government coalition Kjellénesque tendencies as well. Preliminary survey data from 2013 suggests that Lithuanians in their 20s today are less tolerant of rights for sexual minorities than their compatriots who came of age in the 1990s. Similarly, many of those who voted for PiS in the last elections were not just older, rural types, but also disaffected youth.

This is by no means an exclusively Central or Eastern European phenomenon, as most countries in the EU have experienced an upswing of support for populistic parties of the right with a nationalist, social conservative, Eurosceptic or anti-immigration profile. Young Western Europeans like identitaire ideologue Markus Willinger have declared a generational “war against the ’68ers” – where the purported ideas of 1968 resemble those of 1789 for Kjellén.

Nevertheless, the phenomenon in the post-2004 new member states is somewhat different from the mid-life crisis of the “old” EU. From 1989 to 1991 the societies in Central and Eastern Europe embraced slogans about liberalisation and democratisation in a spirit of optimism about the new era that appeared to be dawning. “Returning to Europe” was perfunctorily equated with integration into structures like the Council of Europe, NATO and especially the EU, and many reforms and sacrifices were made in the name of joining these clubs of the winners of history as soon as possible.

This text is a part of New Eastern Europe’s special coverage titled “A debate on the future of Europe”.

Yet, instead of internalising the new values required to fully integrate with the EU, the Council of Europe and NATO – we may call these the ideas of 1989 – many in Central and Eastern Europe primarily wanted to be rid of the former communist regime, its mind-set and cadres. Instead of becoming what Christopher Bickerton terms member states, these societies longed for independent nation-statehood first and foremost. This desire for national statehood – recently enshrined in the Latvian Constitution with the neologism valstsgriba – has little or no coupling to broader liberal values. Indeed, since the historic ideal for many of these countries is the period of independence between the world wars, where liberal democracy more often than not had failed, it would seem then that Kjellén’s ideas of 1914 have a greater emotional resonance and legitimacy than those of 1989.

A fundamental problem with the current structure of the EU is that it remains a confederation of national states that retain so much sovereignty that common actions required to meet today’s problems are almost doomed to fail acrimoniously. The nation state, it is argued, is the best guarantor for democracy and human rights – at least for its own citizens. Yet human rights are meant to be universal and no one country alone can handle the challenges of the globalised economy, climate change or the current migration crisis. As a result, nation states turn inwards and adopt beggar-thy-neighbour policies, like closed borders and self-interested disengagement, similar to what Europe saw in the immediate run-up to both world wars.

Anyone who has studied interwar European history knows that the nation state as a form of polity can also be a vehicle for illiberalism, authoritarianism and repression as much as it can be a context for democracy, civic rights and advanced welfare. Unfortunately, for the eastern members of the EU, it is precisely these regimes of the 1930s that the modern Kjelléns hold up as an idealised national Golden Age that anachronistically serves as a legitimating frame of reference for the future: an imagined pristine time before communism, but also, ominously, a time before the Holocaust.

How to prevent the EU from going the way of the League of Nations? One way forward, away from the brink, would require Europeans to embrace fully the need for deeper, real integration at the expense of the nation state as the primary repository of popular sovereignty. European federalism – the proverbial United States of Europe – is an old bugbear for many. Understandably so, as, unlike anything that has happened before, it would be entirely voluntary and based on principles of democracy and human rights: the ideas of 1789 and 1989 combined.

This is possible, if we shift our gaze north of the United States. For most Canadians neither federalism (multi-layered political plurality) nor multi-culturalism (multi-layered plurality of identity) are viewed as detrimental to democracy, social justice or prosperity. Canadian thinkers like Will Kymlicka have much to offer on the current debates on migration, citizenship and human rights that are hobbling European co-operation. Indeed, what I would like to see is a greater Canadianisation of Europe. It may just be the antidote for the ideas of 1914.

Matthew Kott is a historian and researcher with Uppsala University. 

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