Arnon Grunberg



On the center and the periphery of the old continent (in two parts)– Perry Anderson in LRB:

“By reason of both the reception and the quality of his work, the Dutch philosopher-historian Luuk van Middelaar can be termed, in Gramsci’s vocabulary, the first organic intellectual of the EU. Though related, applause and achievement are not the same. The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, which catapulted van Middelaar to fame and the precincts of power, is a remarkable work. The tones in which it was received are of another order. ‘There are books,’ a Belgian reviewer declared, ‘before which a chronicler is reduced to a single form of commentary: an advertisement.’ The author himself has posted forty encomia on his website, in seven or eight languages, tributes ransacking the lexicon of admiration: ‘supremely erudite’, ‘brilliant’, ‘beautifully written’, ‘a gripping narrative of personalities and events that reads like a Bildungsroman’, ‘all the fields of human knowledge and culture are convoked in abounding richness’, ‘near Voltairean’, ‘a Treitschke with the tongue of Foucault’. Even the austere European Journal of International Law thought it ‘read like a thriller’.
Signal amid this enthusiasm has been a lack of curiosity about the author himself. To understand The Passage to Europe, however, a sense of where van Middelaar comes from is required. Born in 1973 in Eindhoven, the company town of Phillips in Brabant, he took history and philosophy at the University of Groningen in the early 1990s. There he joined the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, the Dutch variant of a liberal party, and studied under the philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit, a sui generis thinker whose ideas left a lasting mark. Good political thought, for Ankersmit, was never of the sort personified by Rawls: an abstract system of principles detached from concrete reality. It was always a response to urgent historical problems, produced by thinkers – Bodin, Hobbes, Locke, Burke or Tocqueville – who were immersed in the great conflicts of their time: religious strife, civil war, revolution, democracy. The first and most original was Machiavelli, confronting the crisis of Italy’s division at the turn of the 16th century. His novel idea of raison d’état became a central tradition in European political thought, and one formative of modern writing about history.”


“In politics as in painting, representation is not a biometric likeness of what is represented, but an act of a basically aesthetic nature: the creation of something new, which was never imagined or existed before. It was an effect of style, beyond fact or value. The creative politician perceived a possibility, glimpsed by no one else, of founding a new conception of things capable of winning the assent of citizens as if they were so many connoisseurs viewing a painting or a building.”


“Contrary to received opinion, the origins of such an aesthetic politics did not lie in the Enlightenment, but in Romanticism. Its first glimmering came in the German Frühromantik, where Schlegel extolled the manifold of opposites in a clouded language that Carl Schmitt would later attack for vagueness, yet which for just that reason was propitious for compromise.”


“After the Second World War, the genius of compromise on which Western democracy rested would reconcile the conflict between capital and labour with the invention of a welfare state which brought peace between them, while preserving capitalism intact. Today, however, division in society no longer sets one camp against another. Instead, the unprecedented issues of crime, environment, ageing, juridification of every relationship, split human beings inwardly. Such problems, Ankersmit went on, can only be resolved by a strong – though certainly lean – state, as the necessary locus of power. Ignored in a Rawlsian matrix concerned only with rights rather than interests, such a state is the indispensable lever of an aesthetic politics capable of restoring the boundaries between public and private realms in this century.”


“In 1999 van Middelaar published the result of his labours in the Netherlands, Politicide: De moord op de politiek in de Franse filosofie (‘Politicide: The Murder of Politics in French Philosophy’). Perhaps advised that this penny-dreadful note might not go down well in France, the book never appeared in the country it was about.”


“Redemption was to be found in the wisdom of Gauchet’s teacher Claude Lefort, whose great work on Machiavelli, taking its cue from the Florentine’s masterly analysis of the relations between ruler and ruled, had restored democracy to its proper dignity by redefining it as the empty space of liberty in which contention between different voices and forces could of necessity never end.”


“After a few more imprecations against Sartre and other advocates of terror, he [Van Middelaar] pointed out that even if bin Laden was not being hidden by the Taliban, no one in their right mind could be against a war on the regime in Kabul. The West stood for the values of civilisation, and was bringing modernity to Afghans and others across the world who craved it. Yet we Westerners, weighed down by the past, hardly even dare to understand this any longer. The White Man’s Burden, that heroic civilising mission depicted by Rudyard Kipling in his proud poem of 1899 as the destiny of the white race, has turned against us and become a true burden, a depressing sense of guilt about colonisation, slavery and economic exploitation of the developing world. Which now prevents us from understanding that colonisation did – indeed! – mean something good for the colonised. Colonisation brought schools, hospitals, science, emancipation of women. Colonisation brought modern reason and freedom within reach of individuals hitherto unable even to be individuals. Sure, colonial crimes occurred – rape, torture, institutional racism – and yet, what a beautiful body of work! Today, the main political question had become: Can human rights spread globally without the action of a Napoleon? The answer is no. Anyone who thinks that it can has a moralistic view of reality. Anyone who thinks that good may impose itself on the world without struggle or the use of power is mistaken. Anyone with a basic understanding of politics knows that what is good does not come automatically. That may require an army. A Napoleon. Or a George W. Bush. A price must be paid if we want human rights to spread. We should not blame Napoleon for using violence, but for not going far enough. Napoleon’s mistake was that he employed freedom and equality as symbols to help his army win battles rather than incorporating these concepts in sturdy institutions in the constitutions which he scattered across Europe. To continue the analogy: our hope must be that Bush finishes his job thoroughly, dragging Afghanistan into modernity with bombs and abundance.
And we, meanwhile, are patiently waiting for a modern-day Kipling, who realises that not white but modern people have a world-historical mission: to sing proudly and unabashedly in praise of the Modern Man’s Burden,’ van Middelaar ended his peroration.”


“Introducing Politicide a decade later, he would write: ‘My book did not pass unnoticed. It was a surprise that an unknown 26-year-old should unexpectedly dare to challenge consecrated French thinkers. Without knowing it, I was putting into practice an aphorism of Stendhal: entry into society should be conducted as if it were a duel. And what opponents I had chosen!’ It took some nerve to pass off this plagiarism from Nietzsche as his own discovery. Van Middelaar’s account of his ascent to Brussels in The Passage to Europe is another little piece of theatre. More original and no less theatrical: In another era, on Tuesday, 27 March 2001, I took the train from Paris, where I was living at the time, to Brussels. I was nervous. A student in political philosophy living in a garret of no more than 18 sq metres, I arduously put on a suit that morning. Approaching the metro, I asked a surprised, well-dressed passer-by whether he could help me fix the knot in my tie. I was on my way to the European quarters in Brussels, where I was to have lunch with the Dutch European commissioner and his personal assistant.
The commissioner with whom he landed a post was Frits Bolkestein. In the Dutch political landscape Bolkestein cut an unusual figure. Son of a president of the court of Amsterdam, after a polymathic education – degrees successively in mathematics, philosophy, Greek, economics (at the LSE) and law – he joined Shell, serving for sixteen years as an overseas executive in East Africa, Central America, London, Indonesia and Paris. In 1976, prompted, he would later explain, by his experience in handling trade unions in El Salvador, where he was posted during one of its death-squad regimes, he became interested in politics, and quit Shell to run for parliament on the VVD ticket.”


“There, Huntington and Kristol were needed to fortify Friedman and Hayek. With this combination of neoliberal and neoconservative ammunition, Bolkestein did battle within the VVD too, catching the tide of a New Right that swelled a season later than in the Anglosphere, generating Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders as successive tribunes of a libertarian economics and Islamophobic politics. Both were formed in the VVD, Wilders serving for a time as Bolkestein’s chief of staff.”


“Six months later, after telling just two intimates – Rutte and van Middelaar – that he would resign if the party fell below 14 per cent in the upcoming municipal elections, van Aartsen quit when it failed to do so. Rutte became leader, the manifesto was forgotten and van Middelaar out of a job. He retired to his study, and over the next two years wrote the book that would make him famous. Published in 2009 (the English-language edition appeared in 2013), it showed how much he had learned since his time in Paris. The Passage to Europe is not the masterpiece of the extravagant bouquets that have greeted it. But it is a work of impressive scholarship and historical imagination, whose range of intellectual reference and polish of style make it unlike anything written about the EU before or since. Van Middelaar took great pains with its literary surface, if not always to its advantage. The title of his book, he once explained, contained a four-fold allusion: to anthroplogical rites of passage, to Forster’s Passage to India, to Benjamin’s Passagenwerkand to a romance by ... Giscard d’Estaing. Epigraphs strewn from Tolstoy to Monty Python by way of Bismarck and Bagehot, Foucault and Arendt, are less than value-added. Such pretensions aside, however, van Middelaar produced something rare in the literature on European integration: an attractively readable account of it.”


“If these were the critical episodes that brought the Union as we know it today into being, what of the capacity of Europe to act as a single political body in the face of the outside world? There, van Middelaar explains in a resonant exordium invoking Machiavelli’s famous image of fortune as a raging river that can either flood a landscape with disastrous consequences or be diked and channelled with practical foresight, the Community must contend with aleatory, unpredictable events in the 1960s for ‘history has no plan, no logic’ – and be tested by them. It had to ‘step into the river of time’ and see how far it might master the current, as Machiavelli taught his contemporaries that heroes of virtue could. In the second part of The Passage to Europe, van Middelaar looks at how the Community fared when it did so. His story unfolds in three stages. In the first, 1950 to 1957, all six member states relied on an American umbrella for their security; only Paris – typically playing a double game – pretended otherwise. Still, in these years it was France, possessed of political tenacity, bureaucratic discipline, diplomatic skills and an eye for the long term that its partners could not match, which made the running. Determined to recover control of its destiny after 1945, it brought the Community into existence with the Schuman Plan and later gave shape to the intermediate sphere. Germany, needing both America and France for its political redemption after the Third Reich, preferred to operate in the inner sphere. Britain merely wanted not to be excluded, without being willing to participate. Critical to the birth of the Common Market was the shock of Suez in the outer sphere, when the USforced Britain out of the attack on Egypt. Abandoned by its ally on the battlefield, France turned to Europe with the Treaty of Rome, founded on an understanding between Adenauer and Mollet.”


“The truth, van Middelaar confesses, is that European politics fail to excite: the public is bored by them. To become engaged, it needs conflict and drama, but the Union proceeds by consensus. In the past, de-dramatisation of the European project was a great merit of the Commission – Monnet’s ‘flight from history into bureaucracy’ was far-sighted, allowing Brussels to operate out of sight on economic issues after more ambitious schemes like the European Defence Community collapsed. Meetings of the Council are more visible, but in these too disagreements are muffled. So the public still has its doubts about the project. But it is necessary to be realistic. In an existing democracy, citizens come first, electing representatives who come into being at their decision. But the foundation of a democracy reverses this order: first come the representatives, who speak before they are appointed to be such, then come those whom they will represent in the polity they found, or as van Middelaar more expressively puts it, ‘first the players, then (if necessary) the chorus’. The parenthesis is a tribute to his candour. The upshot? ‘We could come straight out with it and call this second version the “coup sequence”. Every royal or imperial dynasty starts with a power grab; every founder is a usurper.’ Much energy is afterwards invested in smooth inheritance and cultivation of public goodwill, ‘but – as Lady Macbeth’s hands remind us – the founding act can never be completely expunged.’ Still, he continues imperturbably, ‘the legitimacy of power is not necessarily adversely affected by the fact that the public appears only afterwards – so long as it does appear.’ What might best conjure it into being? ‘The European political body,’ he concludes, ‘exists on condition that, in word and deed, it can thrill its manifold public for a moment.’ How might that occur? ‘Great events and crises sunder the closed horizon of waiting, sweeping away the boredom.’”

Read the complete article here.

A friend recently remarked that Mr. Van Middelaar is one of the more interesting columnists in the Netherlands, that might very well be the case, but above all, this says a lot about the dullness of his colleagues. (Which is not to say that Mr. Van Middelaar is the opposite of dullness.)

After crushing Mr. Van Middelaar Perry Anderson heaps some praise on him, tomorrow we will see where this ends.

For now the lengthy quote of Mr. Van Middelaar’s article in the Dutch daily ‘Trouw’ suggests that some of the opinions of Mr. Van Middelaar didn't age well.
But since he himself referred to Stendhal we might conclude that the truth behind the conviction is pure ambition.

Whether the true problem of European politics is its failure to excite the hoi polloi is doubtful. The first decades of this century taught us that we should not turn to politics to sweep away the great and indeed tragic wave of boredom that is always endangering our wellbeing. We have arts, sports, unfaithfulness, drugs (legal and illegal) and for the true thrill seeker there is tourism in North Korea and smuggling drugs or as a last resort trying to become a spy or a contract killer. (Fair enough, the boss of the spy usually is a politician, sort of.)

One could argue that Europe fails because even the cosmopolitan citizens of Amsterdam have no clue what the cosmopolitans of Munich are talking about, despite the vague notion that COVID might be on their minds as well. (Needless to say, I don’t use the word “cosmopolitan” pejoratively.)

A resident of a small town in Utah and a resident of Boston despite all kinds of differences might have at least the same enemy or the same friends, in other words they can have the same conversation at the same time.

What all Europeans have in common is the U.S.
After 1945 we have this motto in Europe: For war and spectacle, the United States of America.
Yes, there were more or less serious European attempts to once again take war seriously, but the old continent has not really been tested yet.

And the (extreme) rightwing Europeans have at least one common enemy: their imaginary Muslim and the asylum seeker they despise deeply.

These are the angles of the European triangle in 2020: The imaginary Muslim as the biggest enemy, the spectacle in the USA (and European envy and contempt for that country) and the boredom at home, represented by the symbol of the bureaucracy in Brussels, a bureaucracy that doesn’t produce heroes not even for one day, at least not yet.

More tomorrow.

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