Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
I happened to be in New York City during last week’s dramatic Brexit referendum, which had an upside and a downside. The upside was that being in NYC made the financial panic palpable, as some of my Wall Street friends stayed up all night in order to capitalize on the market swings that followed. Like London, New York (or at least Manhattan) is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan metropolis that pretends to be above everyday politics - until, that is, politics rudely crash the party.
The downside to being there was that I missed the Italian reaction to Brexit, which may or may not have generated as much interest as the national soccer team’s dazzling run at the European championships. Unlike most Americans, Italians are quite knowledgeable about politics, if only to have yet another subject to argue about over espresso. Recent polls show that many Italians would favor following the United Kingdom in leaving the European Union, which probably means the politicians will never allow such a referendum here. My politically-connected Italian friends assure me Matteo Renzi is unlikely to repeat David Cameron’s mistake.
But then again, who knows? Rome just elected its first female mayor from the upstart, renegade Movimento Cinque Stelle party that favored a referendum on the EU but then changed its mind. The populist mood is still apparent here, however. Like all populists, Virginia Raggi will have difficulty shifting from campaign mode to governance mode, which requires being able to work with those whom populists usually think are morally bankrupt. (Not to mention dealing with the bankruptcies facing Italy’s financial sector that may force it out of the EU anyway.) Unless one lives in Switzerland, referenda are not the normal way of governing a modern society, so some tough choices will have to be made by those the people have chosen as its representatives.
Having just lectured on John Locke and Edmund Burke at Acton University, I’ve been thinking about representative government and political parties quite a bit recently, and it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that politics remains a much-derided but still vitally important framework for how we live. Religious leaders and economists often try, or are encouraged, to put politics aside but they are inevitably drawn into its vortex any time some kind of disruption occurs. What’s surprising is that they continue to be surprised that politics can still emand our collective attention.
Of course, no one likes to be identified as “political” – it implies that one is unprincipled, prone to engaging in rhetorical posturing, and worst of all, living off the taxes of everyone else, all of which is factually correct. Saving lives and souls or starting a productive business that meets the needs of customers would seem to be a much better use of our limited time on earth. So why, then, do we care so much about politics? Why did Aristotle call us the zoon politikon and political science “architectonic”?
Politics reigns supreme because of our natural desire for justice, not only for ourselves but for those who live among us. But we also have differing, often opposing, opinions about justice and about who should be included “among us.” Who should rule? How? What makes up a “people” or a “citizen”? These are perennial questions cannot be avoided by any society, try as we might.
We try to avoid these questions because we know that our opinions about justice can and often do lead to divisions and conflict. In fact, the European Union was started precisely to squelch the dangers of such political claims that have led to so many destructive wars. The EU is a political project meant to de-politicize Europeans by taking politics out of their hands and placing it in bureaucracies in Brussels. Erase national borders by allowing goods, services and labor to move freely and eliminate national currencies in favor of the Euro managed by the Germans at the European Central Bank. The result would be a peaceful, prosperous, and perhaps slightly boring Europe, otherwise known as the continent inhabited by Friedrich Nietzsche’s “last man”.
Not so fast, my friends. Europe is indeed peaceful and prosperous by any reasonable standard, but the debt crisis in Greece and the vast numbers of migrants coming across the Mediterranean Sea have reminded Europeans of the primacy of politics. While the ECB manages monetary policy, fiscal policy remains in the hands of national governments that still resist being told what to do by other governments. The result is an unsustainable amount of debt backed up by the continent’s largest banks. The migrants coming from the Middle East and Africa usually arrive in Italy or Greece, who then have to bear the costs of rescuing, sorting and resettling them. The attempt to create a “United States of Europe” is failing because European nations still remain.
It is not shocking that these ancient nations are re-asserting themselves when given the chance to do so. The question is whether they still have the spiritual and material resources to continue to survive. Most have historically low birth rates, overly-generous welfare programs and virtually no economic growth or military capabilities. European governments and banks are facing enormous debt crises. And the one religion that both unified and separated European nations, i.e. Christianity, has been declining for quite some time.
Even if one continually prays for the virtues of faith, hope and charity, it all adds up to a pretty bleak picture. This is uncharted territory for Western civilization. Perhaps the revival of politics in Britain and other nations will resurrect some of those latent energies, ones that require the particularity and, yes, patriotism that have been lost in the quest for unity.
The multicultural illusion is that we must disregard religious, racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences in order to live simply as “humanity.” But what if living well requires us to take these differences seriously and respectfully? The recovery of such truly humane thinking would show the world that Europe is something more viable and nobler than the European Union.