All One's Eggs in One Basket Case; Review of John Laughland's The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea

All One's Eggs in One Basket Case; Review of John Laughland's The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea

Mini Teaser: A specter is haunting Europe and John Laughland: the specter of Europe united, of nations abolished, of the administration of things replacing the government of people. He has written a book about it that is intriguing...

by Author(s): EUGEN WEBER

All One's Eggs in One Basket Case; Review of John Laughland's The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea (London: Little, Brown, 1997)
Eugen Weber

"As a by-product of recent moves toward some sort of international government, the direct control of the elector over national policy is becoming weaker. The spokesmen of the nation, meeting in council with those of other nations, may be outvoted or otherwise committed to agreements involving the country against the wishes of the electors." [Christabel Pankhurst, Pressing Problems of the Closing Age (London, 1924)]

A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of Europe united, of nations abolished, of the administration of things replacing the government of people. It certainly haunts John Laughland, and he has written a book about it that is intriguing, meandering, uneven, not always persuasive even if you agree with much of its argument, as I do, but well worth the detour nevertheless.

Faced with declining competitiveness, low growth, mass unemployment, sclerotic and often corrupt political structures, European countries are undertaking to reproduce their present systems at a supra-national level rather than reform them at home. States limping from self-inflicted wounds hope to walk taller and farther in seven-league Maastricht boots. Political inability to tackle reforms will be overcome by technocratic rules and Common Market protection. A European bloc will cushion the continent against world competition. Business suffocating from overregulation will find a second breath in a broader economic space where everyone will be burdened with similar disabilities. Was this what Churchill meant when, in his great 1946 speech at Zurich, he called for the building of "a kind of United States of Europe"?

The first step in that building process would be a partnership between France and Germany. European integration, the French thought, was the only safe way to contain Germany. European integration, the Germans thought, was the only honorable way for post-Nazi Germany to rejoin the comity of nations. The notion was hardly new. Churchill himself spoke of a re-creation. For supra-local groups--nobles, merchants, clerks, soldiers of fortune--Europe had always been the stage of their activities. Nation-states, really a nineteenth-century conception, competed with broader visions, new and old, but never eliminated them. Victor Hugo imagined a federal European republic. In 1894, a sensible scientist, the astronomer Camille Flammarion, surmised a United States of Europe in place by the twenty-fifth century. Others expected it sooner and, after the First World War had demonstrated what disunion could do, talk of European unity became common.

Some propounded customs unions, others pan-European union, while the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand, proposed "the establishment of a common market aiming to raise the level of human well-being on all the territories of the European community." Laughland does not cite Briand's memorandum of May 1, 1930, where this passage occurs, and he may be right not to do so, for governmental responses were discouraging. Only Yugoslavia and Bulgaria approved the initiative, which died stillborn. According to Laughland's sources in a rather foreshortened account, Briand was trying to keep in check a Germany that France alone could not control. Gustav Stressemann, who died in 1929, wanted to make up by diplomatic means the losses Germany had incurred shortly before. Self-interest is a sound motive for political action. But, pace Pankhurst, such action was not yet on the agenda of serious statesmen. When Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, descendant of a Belgian family that long served the Habsburgs and related to half the nobility of Europe, put his pan-European plans before Sir Eric Drummond, the general-secretary of the League of Nations responded, "Please, don't move too fast."

Pacifists were not the only advocates of Europe. Laughland's second chapter, "Fascists and Federalists", with an epigraph that quotes Goebbels dismissing "countries" as irrelevant, demonstrates that fascists and national socialists also ranted about One Europe, united of course under their rule. First fascists, then Nazi architects of a New Europe and their hangers-on, decried anachronistic particularism and international anarchy, envisaged a planned economy directed by a supra-national political authority.

The Tainted Source of Laughland's title is explained in the subtitle: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea. Indifferent to the fact that the origins of the national idea (as of the socialist) were undemocratic too, Laughland damns by association. But awareness that nasty men can be fond of animals has not kept me from loving animals too. And a farrago of notes laid end to end turns out more tedious than convincing, especially when too many references are wrong or out of context. Collaborators and Vichy were different kettles of fish, the lunatic Alphonse de Chateaubriant was no Vichyite ideologist, the Chantiers de la jeunesse and the Compagnons de France were not movements of collaboration, nor was the Personalism of Emmanuel Mounier or of the young Jacques Delors. Esprit was no different from other rebellious and renovatory young movements of the 1930s, and its angry reaction to French decrepitude and disintegration was shared by many. Even "national socialism" had been a literally descriptive political label, long before the Nazis appropriated it.

Nazi associations did not prevent pan-European ideas from resurfacing after the Nazis left Europe in ruins. Pre-war arguments now cut closer to the bone. Nations were more credibly denounced as destructive and self-destructive, irrational, destabilizing, and unable to defend themselves in isolation. Among the shambles attributed to national sins and failings, federalists, one-worldists, and advocates of efficiency campaigned against nations and their apparatus. Too small, anachronistic, and adversarial to meet the challenges of the modern world, nations were obsolete. Too slow and cumbersome to handle difficult political conundrums, representative institutions were derelict. Democracy itself was walking wounded, its moods not to be trusted, its sporadic bouts of self-affirmation suspect. Countries would be better managed like a commercial enterprise, by specialists who could ensure their efficient functioning.

The fabric of society had become too complicated for clumsy confusion. Politics were messy and illogical. Dismantle political structures, it was demanded, and replace them with economic ones. Goal-oriented administrations not subject to capricious electoral opinions would organize the continent rationally, abolish conflict, establish harmony. Here are the two main strands of the European argument with which Laughland takes issue: hostility to national states, their sovereignty and their allegedly anachronistic institutions; and economism--the view that politics consists essentially in the administration of economy and society. Europe, from the first, was to be an economic community: coal, steel, agriculture, atomic energy, currency, tax and fiscal policies, the market, were to be gleichgeschaltet; political union would grow from economic and technical institutions that by-passed political obstacles; and eventually community law would override national law. Britain, which in 1972 thought that it had joined a free-trade zone between independent nations (did it really?), soon found itself in a customs union intended to create an integrated political-economic space.

This is what Laughland cannot abide. He agrees with General de Gaulle that there cannot be any other Europe than a Europe of states, and with John Stuart Mill that the worth of a state is the worth of the individuals composing it. The state's power, in his view, should be judicial not administrative, upholding the rule of law and ensuring the free functioning of the market. Laughland knows that in Continental tradition the state is not there to uphold the free legal decisions of its citizens but to direct them, and especially to direct the economy. That is precisely what he does not like. Yet if for hundreds of years states have regarded themselves as self-contained economic spaces, the extension of that view to European scale is not extraordinary. If government has long been exercised by specialists, not grown out of society but trying to act on it, management by one lot of technocrats is no more shocking than government by another lot of technocrats. The European ideology that Laughland denounces is based on belief in the primacy of executive power and follows in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The attempts of Colbert's imperfectly bureaucratic state to mold society and direct it familiarized later generations with the state's claim to have the right to do so. And the view of law as commands backed by threats shocks few in the perspective either of history or of everyday experience. So Laughland, in my view, is waging a baroud d'honneur--a brave but hopeless rearguard action. But his principles are worthy; or at least worth stating.

He states them most forcefully and most effectively in the second half of the book and, while he reveals little that is new, it is cogently done. Edmund Burke attacked as inhumane the idea that society could be invented and planned on the basis of abstract theory. That is not quite what's going on in Europe, but Laughland thinks it is. Replace national controls by international ones, ignore history, habit, fruitful accident, the age-old fabric of society? But, he rightly insists, nations are not large industrial complexes. Is society too complicated for democratic institutions, as advocates of bureaucratic decision making and unaccountable governing bodies argue? Society is too complicated to be run by irresponsible managers and bureaucrats, answers Laughland. Just look at the results.

New rules designed to solve one problem create new problems, call for new regulations, increase complexity, render spontaneous adjustments less likely. The administration of things does not replace the government of people. The relation between means and ends is critical, not technological. That's what the champions of the welfare state forgot, and consider what they have wrought. The illusion that conflict can be eliminated by redistribution of income has raised as many problems as it has solved. Welfare state policies have turned into quagmires; health, pension, and unemployment programs are in or near bankruptcy. Good feelings make neither good numbers nor good policy--just growing bickering about what the French euphemistically describe as solidarity: more taxes. "Having looked to government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them", warned Burke. Feeding and biting continue in symbiosis.

Above all, however, conflict cannot be eliminated by cushions or by fiat, nor should it be. Civil association goes with differences of opinion. Living together is about continual negotiation to mitigate differences. Politics, like law, is predicated on coming to terms with conflict, some of it irresolvable; on channeling faction, not suppressing it. No conflict, no politics: only management.

Still, management can be more useful than Laughland will admit. Published in 1770, SŽbastien Mercier's Memoirs of the Year 2440 presents a Paris that is rational and civilized, even to the traffic that progresses smoothly because carriages keep to opposite sides of the street so that there is no fighting for precedence, and rational planning makes life easier. Paris is a bit more rational and civilized today, though it may not appear so; and traffic is a bit less chaotic than in Mercier's day. Of course, politics operate in a realm less predictable, more contingent, and more risky than traffic management. That is why Laughland warns that it is dangerously unpolitical to want to put an end to all conflict or to believe that a state, let alone a continent, can be ruled by enlightened despots.

The plan to create a more or less de-politicized political union in Europe hinges on a common currency and on a central bank. Laughland denounces it as "a technocratic plan to introduce an unavowed political union by the back door." Certainly, it seems to represent a significant displacement of political power. Monetary policy is a way for government to influence the economy. The value of present currencies reflects the politics of national governments and of their central banks. Monetary union would transfer executive power from nation-states, no longer free to make economic decisions, to a central bank wielding monetary power under no parliamentary control. This central bank, Laughland contends, and the monetary system as a whole, would reflect German interests; and he quotes Chancellor Kohl: "European monetary policy will be German monetary policy." The European Currency Unit (ECU), or euro, would be nothing but the Deutsche Mark in disguise, says Laughland. But then again, recent German economic problems raise doubts about their commitment to a single currency soon.

Laughland writes as if European integration challenged age-old national entities. But while states of one kind or another go back to the beginnings of history, nation-states are barely two hundred years old. I'm comfortable with them, but why should their displacement by a more encompassing polity be regarded as more than an adjustment to changing conditions? The nation-states that affirmed themselves in nineteenth-century Europe had to teach most of their citizens a common language, common sentiments, respect for common laws. The dialects and the local allegiances overborne barely one hundred years ago were no less respectable than the national languages and allegiances of today. Laughland argues powerfully against the displacement of national sovereignty. But the sovereign people, nowadays, resents its representatives or shrugs them off. Why should it feel less sovereign when Eurocrats replace national bureaucrats?

It is not the displacement of national sovereignty that bothers me, but the rate of that displacement. European integration--commercial, technological, cultural, linguistic--was doing fine with little prompting; and borders, in the public eye, were becoming as irrelevant as affirmative action in Augsburg or Belleville. Then, a few years ago, political considerations dictated its acceleration. It is not integration but unnaturally speedy pressure to integrate that should concern us. Focused on principle, Laughland scorns questions of degree and tempo and, again, he may be right. We know a great deal about Europe's developing market, its ill-soluble day to day and year to year problems, while little thought has been devoted to the broader implications of European community, let alone unity. Laughland supplies some of what's been missing.

"A philosopher", wrote Sir Edward Gibbon in 1776, "may be permitted to consider Europe as a great republic." Two centuries after Gibbon, less philosophical observers may, like Laughland, regard the great republic as just a way of putting all one's eggs in one basket case. Combining nationalism and illiberalism, the "common European home" formula popular with Europe-ists from Channel to Urals, allows European leaders to run away from their problems while pretending that they're on a forward march. In Laughland's eyes this transfer of national failure to the supra-national level conceals a plot to assert Germany as Europe's natural center of gravity and to extend German links with Russia at the expense of the existing Atlantic Alliance.

Once upon a time Andrei Sakharov urged massive international taxation to redistribute wealth from rich countries to poor. Helmut Kohl seems to have read him: German transfers of wealth to Russia run into tens of billions. But American billions run into that sewer too. Clinton and Kohl should heed Henry Adams: "The Baltic separates, the Atlantic unites. . . . Somebody, at the beginning, cut Europe in halves, once and for all, along the Vistula." Along the Vistula, one surmises, and not the Elbe, because the Roman Church and the Renaissance got into the Mazovian plain, as into Bohemia and Hungary. Bungling apart, and bungling cannot be lightly dismissed, that may explain the talk of Europe's expansion in those directions, and the even less justified talk of NATO expansion up to Russia's borders at great cost, great risk, and little evident profit. As Adam Garfinkle titled a recent article about the enlargement of NATO , what's the rush?

John Laughland has sensible things to say, but he interlards them with more dubious propositions. As in Wagner, one has to cross long verbose stretches to reach the melodic oases. But when you get there, it's worth it. I don't know if Laughland is right, or how far he's right; but he certainly makes one think.

Essay Types: Book Review