The Buzz

European Hubris and Civilizational Decline

The best public intellectuals are often difficult to force into ideological straitjackets. John Gray, someone who moved across the Left-Right spectrum—and eventually rejected the old categories entirely—fits that description. And in an oped in the Guardian this week, he demonstrates that a skeptical disposition has enabled him to see issues of the day through lenses unavailable to others.

Gray suggests that for much of the twentieth century, Europe has been in an identity crisis, trying to find its place in the world. He quotes poet Paul Valery, writing in 1919: 

Will Europe become what it is in reality—that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia? Or will it remain what it seems—that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial global, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body?

Gray argues that this imperative to show the world that Europe could again be a great light to all nations led to overreach and failure to acknowledge some of the limits of democratic politics. He cites economists who suggest that a monetary union such as the euro can only work with a common government balance sheet. But that in turn "requires a single government, and that is politically impossible. However one views the nation state—and I am no great fan—it has proved to be the upper limit of democratic accountability." The founders of what become the European Union, scarred by the unprecedented carnage of two world wars, couldn't see these realities: 

[I]n the aftermath of the second world war, the visionaries who launched the European project were bent on restoring the continent to what they imagined was its rightful position—equal or superior to the US and a model for the world. It was a vain and backward-looking vision; but if the project had been less hubristic and the euro confined to a few closely similar countries, the productive and prosperous society that was achieved in half of Europe during the postwar period might have continued and expanded.

Thus Gray begins to tell a story familiar throughout history: men have a tendency to overestimate their own capabilities, a quality often on display as they labor to maintain great civilizations. The tragedy is the premature destruction of all that has already been built—what Burke called the "bank and capital of nations and ages"—when prudence might have preserved it for generations to come.