Europe Ancient and Present

– Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus had to climb up a hill …

…. and from the elevation he looked down on The Burning of Rome, devastating one of the cities we consider as major source of what we call today EUrope, devastating the living space for uncountable lives, and also being a factor in the crumbling away of the overcome powers. It is said that he had been satisfied, laughing by the outlook.

Today we do not have to climb up a hill to see what happens – too clear are the signs of the developments taking place on the upper echelons of society, today even literally above our heads: on the upper floors of the finance centres, in airport-lounges of the international jet-set and in the modern ‘clouds’ if we take them as metaphor of a technologically developed global society that employs these means as instruments for advancing financialisation and speculation.

Another criminal offense that provides the foundation of modern Europe can be taken from another ancient source – the country of reference now Greece.

According to the Greek myth, Zeus, the Thunder-God residing on the Olympus, in the shape of a bull abducted Europa, the daughter of the Phoenician king Agenor and carried her over the sea to Crete. Agenor sent his sons out to search for their sister. One of them, Kadmos, landed in Greece and was told by the oracle of Delphi that he should wander around, armed with his spear till he reached the cowherd Pelagon in the land of Phokis. He should kill Pelagon – the man of earth, “born to die” – and choose the cow with the sign of the moon on both her flanks and follow her, till she would lie down, with her horns on the ground. On this hill he should kill and sacrifice her to the earth Goddess and then found a big city on this spot, Thebes.

Kadmos followed the oracle and became the founder of Thebes. He married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares, the War God, and Aphrodite (…). It is not clear from the myths whether he killed the moon-cow, obviously his sister Europa, or not. In any case, one does not hear of her again. She, the raped and abducted woman was only the means to lead the warrior and new culture hero into the foreign land and to his greatness.

(Maria Mies: Europe in the Global Economy or the Need to De-Colonize Europe; in: Peter Herrmann (Ed.): Challenges for a Global Welfare System: Commack, New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.; 1999: 153-171; here: 160 f.)

Today this may be translated into a political dilemma – that between national supremacy and sovereignty and true international and global solidarity and integration. The weekend’s Financial Times (10/12/2011) states

Mr Cameron will receive plaudits from Conservative MPs when he returns to the Commons on Monday. But back in London he may reflect on former prime minister Tony Blair’s bitter observation in 2006: ‘Co-operate in Europe and you betray Britain, be unreasonable in Europe, be praised back home and be utterly without influence in Europe.

But it is not only about the farewell by and from Britain.

It is also about the behaviour shown by the German Bundesbank. Accordingly – and again with reference to the FT:

It was exactly the rhetoric used by Germany’s famously conservative Bundesbank, to which Mr. Draghi paid tribute.

As such, it not only put pressure on governments but build is credibility among Germans, many of whom remain wary of handling control of their currency to an Italian.

As much as the two latter references resonate some form of abduction – at least the abduction of responsibly choosing points of reference of politics and policies we find the reference to the Nero, his will to establish power on the debris of the past and present, reflected in another statement from the same edition of the FT (though in a different article):

Britain was ‘as isolated as somebody who refused to join the Titanic just before it sailed’, said Terry Smith, chief executive of Tullet Prebon, the interdealer broker.

Taken from here it seems to be clear: the ship is sinking. The new steps are not more than an empty promise.

At least looking at Germany, the strong and supposedly reasoning power, shows that there is indeed little reason for optimism and trusting that cointry’s ability to balanced and strategic action. ‘Cracks spreading through Europe’s banks’ we read as if attentive observers didn’t knew this already – and as if it would be new that also the ‘strong political and economic powers’ are facing a serious threat: ‘Bail-out could be on the cards for Commerzbank’ and in France ‘Moody’s downgrades lender’s credit ratings’.


In this situation surely only few are really leaning back like Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. On the contrary, new programs show up, new efforts are made public and …

… and apparently forlorn admonishers are another time turning up, vehemently claiming the right of reason – or are they claiming the reason of right?

One of these apparently forlorn admonishers is Juergen Habermas, recently called in an article in the Spiegel as ‘the last European’, and looked at in terms of ‘a Philosopher’s Mission to Save the EU’.

As such, indeed

he accused EU politicians of cynicism and turning their backs on the European ideals.

So, according to Georg Diez, author of the said article

Europe is his project. It is the project of his generation.

And surely one may approach it this way. However, there is a catch with such an assessment. At the time of Europe’s early institutionalisation Habermas and ‘his generation’, namely people like Max Horheimer and Theodor W. Adorno had been actually highly critical about the approach towards integration based upon instrumental reason. In an earlier work, Habermas states the problematique of the incremental and piecemeal capitalist reformism as

in its own terms the struggle between classes constituted itself only on the basis of the capitalist mode of production and with this it constituted the objective situation on the basis of which the class structure of the politically constituted traditional society could be recognised. Capitalism regulated by the state as it emerged as answer on the manifest class antagonism which resulted in threats for the system, leads the class conflict to a standstill.

(Habermas, Juergen, 1968: Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’; in: Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’; Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp: 48-103; here: 84)

In this way, systems are not ‘rational’ in the sense of an abstract and generally acknowledge rationality. Rather, they

exist as long as the development of the sub-systems of instrumental action remains within the realm of the legitimising virtue of cultural traditions.

(ibid.: 67)

Looking at this position we have to say that it is against this Europe to the extent to which this Europe is not at all based on what Habermas would see in a later perspective as the general principles of rationality – and it is important to note that at this stage we are dealing with an entirely different historical situation. Any rationality – limited by the self-reference of the ruling, hegemonic class – had to be historically limited to maintaining the functionality of the given system. As such it had been not least a matter which I characterised myself later by pointing out

The different involved actors have in part the same, in part different, even contradicting interests. Subsequently we find the emergence of specific criteria of success, reflecting the substantial determination by the respective position within the process of reproduction.

(Herrmann, Peter, 1995: Movements and Organisations in the Cyclical Processes of Socialisation; in: Swiss Journal of Sociology; volume 21/1 :85-106; here 97)

In 1995, Habermas himself acknowledges, pointing in the same issue of the Swiss Journal of Sociology on the tension between fundamental rights and their regulation, emphasising that

the materialisation of law shows itself in side-effects

(Habermas, Juergen, 1995: On the Internal Relationship between the State of Law and Democracy; in: Swiss Journal of Sociology; volume 21/1: 11-20; here: 18)

In principle, we are still dealing with the same pattern of distinct rationalities behind which the fact of multiple hegemonies is hidden and by which it is blurred: the ongoing principle of class interests and its expression by the reference to the nation state on the one hand and the reference to the supranational level on the other hand. Habermas indirectly addresses this issue in a contribution on the Concept of Human Dignity, referring to relevant conceptualisations as

universal legal concepts [as] facilitate[d] negotiated compromises

(Habermas, Juergen, 2010: The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights; in: Metaphilosophy; Oxford/Malden: Blackwell: 474-480; here: 475; see also Habermas, Juergen, 2011: Wie demokratisch ist die EU? Die Krise der Europaeischen Union im Licht einer Konstitutionalisierung des Voelkerrechts; in: Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik 8/2011: 37-48; here: 37)

However, he remains caught in the irresolvable contradiction between the different claims of sovereignty. The problem can be seen in the fact that he insufficiently differentiates within the multilayered systems. Rather than clearly spelling out the various contradictions as such:

  • the contradiction between [i] the suggested people as sovereign on the one hand, [ii] the sovereignty of the actual hegemon (i.e. the ruling class) on the other hand and – as mediator – [iii] the sovereignty of the nation state as third realm
  • the contradiction between [i] the suggested people as sovereign, [ii] the actual national hegemon, [iii] the nation state as relatively independent power and [iv] the inter/supranational level
  • the contradiction between the now four suggested sovereigns ([i] national people, [ii] national ruling class, [iii] national institutional system [iv] inter/supranational level) and in addition [v] the different other relevant national systems, each of them again existing as such complex unity

Habermas escapes into a realm of abstract reason and hope. So we read in a contribution on Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights:

On the one hand, human rights could acquire the quality of enforceable rights only within a particular political community—that is, within a nation-state. On the other hand, human rights are connected with a universalistic claim to validity, which points beyond all national boundaries.20 This contradiction would find a reasonable solution only in a constitutionalized world society (not necessarily with the characteristics of a world republic).

(Habermas, Juergen, 2010: The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights; in: Metaphilosophy; Oxford/Malden: Blackwell: 474-480; here: 475)

Again, this leaves us with a very general plea for reason – and as such Habermas shows another time what he showed over a long time already: the individualist and voluntarist shift. At the end, Habermas’ earlier orientation along the lines of class struggle and class justice moved first to a general principle of discoursivity and ends – for the time being – at the point of an absolute idea. As such it is caught in the danger of

  • being squeezed between individual responsibility, the duty if emerging as good-doer (see Michaela Haas: Es geht nicht um viel. Es geht um alles. Die Rechnung ist ganz einfach: Wenn jeder von uns nur ein bisschen was beiträgt, ist die Weltarmut so gut wie beseitigt. Also: Was hindert uns daran?; in: 09.12.2011 SZ-Magazin|Magazin: 34-38),
  • disappearing in an abstract and idealist cloud, impossible to be controlled as it can claim its value from ‘pure reason’
  • emerging as a new Herrenmensch, pleading to individual politicians and countries to behave responsible, using the power for the suposed general interest.

Finally Habermas addresses the – in a contribution in the Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik

federal government that holds in conjunction with the German-French cooperation the key to European future and it has the responsibility for the date of Europe.

(Habermas, Juergen, 2011: Wie demokratisch ist die EU? Die Krise der Europaeischen Union im Licht einer Konstitutionalisierung des Voelkerrechts; in: Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik 8/2011: 37-48; here: 37)

It is only consequent, that we then find for instance the German Die Zeit drawing a parallel between Kant and Habermas as we learn from the article by Georg Diez. However, if something like it is suggested it is probably more reasonable to highlight the affinity between Habermas’ Euro-euphoria and Kant’s three works on reason rather than the latter’s work on ‘Perpetual Peace’.

Of course, we still find in Habermas’ writing the argument against instrumental reason, reading that

that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d’état.

(from the article by Diez)

But point of reference is now rationality as general pattern, independent of class struggles and differences in and contradictions between interests.

Consequently, there is some truth in the sentence that

the activists of the Occupy movement refuse to formulate even a single clear demand, [and] Habermas spells out precisely why he sees Europe as a project for civilization that must not be allowed to fail, and why the “global community” is not only feasible, but also necessary to reconcile democracy with capitalism.

However, the developments over the last years in general and in particular over the last days, culminating in Friday’s decision, clearly show that dreams do not offer a solution when it comes to a clash of interests.


So at least I have to admit for myself, being younger than Habermas and perhaps in some way still the same generation:

Europe is my project. It is the project of my generation.

I write this, trying to defend myself and also with some bitterness but not least with some energy aiming on maintaining it as my project – Europe, another Europe.

Coming back to the debate on sovereignty – and on Habermas – the difference and struggle between the perspectives on sovereignty and hegemony is currently focused around a potentially fatal trinity

  • finacialised utilitarianism and in tendency decoupling of the entire economy from actual use value
  • particularising individualism and isolationalism
  • strive for hegemony of this particularising force – taking the form of re-nationalisation and re-regionalisation, commonalisation, discoursation but also appearing in the form of governancisation, communitarianism, professionalism, functionalisation and formalisation.

This seems to be a vicious circle – the Faustian ‘vitalising circle’. We are, indeed, living in this society and we simply have to start from here – suggesting ‘but I would not start from here’ may said to be the saying in which the Habermasian plea for reason can be summarised. Working in academia and having worked on EU-issues for  some time, I lived sufficiently long moving within this trinity, trying to push for an alternative. It is about looking at a time of unsettling processes and debates; it is about moving on stages of dazzlement: areas of ‘good governance’ that emerge latest in hindsight as arrays of greasy ground, giving some security by golden chains [actually in hindsight it looks better than actually being on the battlefield]; it is about distraction from and artificialisation of needs and interests and it is about the isolation in alleged power positions. I still believe there is nothing wrong with the engagement in those democratic institutions to which I refer. On the contrary: today, these institutions are more important than ever. Entering into distractions by allowing laws of liquid modernity (Bauman) taking power over seems to be more dangerous than withdrawing from any engagement.

However, while moving on these stages one has to resist the temptation of looking for a new point of departure rather than starting from the existing point. And the given point of departure is a world that is not trinitarian, nor binary. However, we have to look for the real world and its contradictions. As much as words and ideas may shape the world, as much as issues that are located on the level of the superstructure play a role in shaping decisively the organic whole of social existence, we nevertheless cannot take this as an excuse for starting the analysis from there. It is still the real economy and the real political power-process that has to be point of reference. Such perspective does not allow us to stop at rejecting greed nor does it allow us to simply look for ‘better regulation’ alone. As important as such issues are we should take the current situation as challenge to thoroughly ask ‘What is the actual change of the productive forces and the mode of production?’

This means also that it is surely correct when the taz criticizes Angela Merkel in the weekend-edition (10/11.12.2011), stating

Evidently Merkle doesn’t think in a systemic way … . For her the problem the problem is located where it becomes manifest, visible.

Indeed, the problem is not about public deficits. However, the analysis provided by the taz (and by so many others) is not really looking at the fundamentals either. It is questionable

that it is a matter of the crisis of the banks/banking system. Dubious loans had been granted without restraint – be it to poor house builders in the USA, a venturer in Spain or careless credit institutions in Ireland. Public debt exploded only subsequent to this snowball effect.

This still sounds as if responsible and circumspect approaches on the finance markets and by the finance institutions (and the governments who failed regulating them) would have fundamentally changed the situation. To some extent only one should follow this. To a larger extent it is about the fundamental change of the system and a new circle of primitive accumulation or as for instance Harvey names it: of accumulation by dispossession. At least it is a point that allows to begin asking serious questions – and also looking for serious answers as it is now about about the process of relational appropriation, i.e. what (kind of) property is appropriate for what and who is and should be the owner.

It is my Europe – even this crisis-shaken Europe, apparently in danger of braking up – to the extent to which I have to admit: I failed thoroughly engaging in such debates that had been aiming on moving further, going beyond the given framework for reason as within this framework reason will barely move beyond technicist solutions, instrumental reason. – And the same is true for allowing academic debates drifting increasingly towards short-term orientations, engaging in bean-counting and finding administrative solutions for substantial questions.

And it is my Europe – and ‘my academia’ alike – to the extent to which I still refuse to engage in certain debates and/or to which I am ready to follow the stony path of resisting the search for simple answers to difficult questions and searching for a new varnish where a new grounding is needed. – No reason to look up, following the clouds in their move nor a reason to climb on up. looking for a spot from where one can look at the devastating fire. If Diez writes on Habermas

it should be mentioned that Habermas is no malcontent, no pessimist, no prophet of doom – he’s a virtually unshakable optimist, and this is what makes him such a rare phenomenon in Germany.

I may claim that I feel myself very much like that, even on the stony path of harsh and twisted way of reality rather than on the idealist way of an absolute idea of rationality.

And stating it this way it also a self-critique not only on the personal level. Also the left should critically look at what actually happened to the own analytical approaches. Orienting on practice – the practice of others and own practice does not mean looking at reality. Practice is only emerging as matter of reality to the extent to which it is able to develop a historical perspective.


What remains? It remains the evidence that rats show empathy – a series of experiments evidenced this.

Since Wolfgang Borchert’s short-story ‘Outside, in front of the door’ we may live with the reassurance that rats are asleep at night.

And the saddening fact, seemingly completely out of context that in a small town near Hamburg an association of owners of allotment gardens decide that only 12.6 of the owners may have a non-German background.

It may be that the latter is not really so much out of context – finally Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus had not just been ‘sitting and waiting’. He is also known as one of the most pronounced persecutors of Christians. So, we see in any case that there is surely no end of history; nor is there any reason to believe that the clash of civilisations, if it exists, really comes by accidental encounters of different faiths. It still is, as it always had been, about a clash of interests.

Before I stated the focus on a potentially fatal trinity

  • finacialised utilitarianism and in tendency decoupling of the entire economy from actual use value
  • particularising individualism and isolationalism
  • strive for hegemony of this particularising force – taking the form of re-nationalisation and re-regionalisation, commonalisation, discoursation but also appearing in the form of governancisation, communitarianism, professionalism, functionalisation and formalisation.

All these and other particularisations are in the better case a withdrawal from collective responsibility; in the worse case they are the justification of particularist interests which cannot mean anything else than the survival of the fittest …

At the end, we are not dealing with any of the trinities mentioned – at the end we have to define a clear alternative. Helmut Schmidt – in his writing on Ausser Dienst (‘Out of Office’) – contends in the last chapter that today individual rights are secured, however morals do not exist (anymore) and are actually questioned (from the last chapter of the audio-book-version). There is surely some truth in it. However, there is a fundamental catch. There will be hardly any relevant – appropriate – social moral as long as we do not achieve rights that are thoroughly understood as social rights. And this surely means not least a matter of looking to advance the process of relational appropriation. If this wants to evolve as real answer it has to go much beyond looking for questions in small spaces.


4 thoughts on “Europe Ancient and Present


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