Sunday, June 7, 2015

"What Does Europe Want?" A Book Review

A Croatian writer is interviewed on Democracy Now about a book he’s written called What Does Europe Want?, and given my abiding interest in the subject - having written the only book that foresaw the reunification of Europe AND the dissolution of the Soviet Union - I request a review copy.  It turns out that it is a joint effort between the Croatian, Srecko Horvath, and the mischievous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has published many books in the US and taught at New York University. Not only: there is a third participant in this discussion of prospects for radical change in Europe, the leader of Greece’s Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras who since the book was written has become the country’s Prime Minister. With tongue-in-cheek chapter headings such as “Are the Nazis Living on the Moon?” or ”Shoplifters of the World, Unite!” or even “Do Markets have Feelings?” the book revolves around the failure of the left to liberate Europe from American domination and what to do about it.

Toward the end of the book we learn that it was first published in 2012 in a number of European languages, so the English text is probably intended for Zizek’s mainly academic American readers who might be familiar with the European saga; most of the material will be excruciatingly unfamiliar to other American readers, even those interested in foreign affairs. I say excruciatingly because as a few commentators are beginning to notice, one of America’s greatest handicaps when it comes to dealing with other countries is its ignorance of their history and current realities.  Not having been written for an American audience, this book offers a glimpse into the way Europeans think and behave when addressing each other. 

The chapters are written alternately by each author, but the Preface is by Alexis Tsipras, and the final chapter is a discussion between Tsipras and the two authors. Scattered throughout the book in bits and pieces is the story of the party’s rise over several years, culminating in its electoral success that took most of the world by surprise. As Greece’s dire situation continues, with talk of it having to leave the Euro, Tsipras is trying to maintain the promises he made to the Greek people during the time the book was being written. The most significant aspect of Syriza’s rise was that for the first time, an election campaign in one country drew the active support of left-wing movements and parties across the European Union, in particular that of the Spanish Podemos Party which in turn made significant progress in parliamentary elections, partly thanks to the Syriza precedent.  Although socialist, communist and green parties have always been active on the European electoral scene, this is the first time that a party descended from the Occupy movement has come to power.

“What does Europe want?” enables American readers to penetrate a world in which 500,000 people speaking over thirty languages live cheek to jowl in an area that is roughly half the size of the continental US  (1.7 million square miles to over 3 million). The European Union was set up in small steps after two World Wars had ravaged the Eurasian peninsula (as I like to call it), in the space of thirty years, hoping to put an end to strife among neighbors with not only different languages, but also different religions, mainly Catholicism and Protestantism, but also Judaism and Islam.

The first time I travelled from Paris to Prague, in the early sixties, I was surprised to discover that the plane ride was scarcely longer than a bus ride from one end of Paris to the other.  At that time, the existence of the so-called Iron Curtain made the Eastern half of Europe seem very far away. Conversely, propinquity partly explains why European cultural and political figures speak several languages and become intimately involved in each other’s worlds, as was the case even when Eastern Europe was part of a different military block. While American academics are most likely to be familiar solely with the work of other American or British academics - or at most that of speakers of one other language - European intellectuals skate back and forth between capitals, mixing and matching the work of a host of Others with whom they may share oppositional histories.

I would not want American readers to be put off from this valuable work by its incessant references to ‘foreign’ people and theories. Zizek in particular loves to mix opera with physics and cinema with history. He is a Marxist whose interests include both philosophy and psychoanalysis, and when he makes the case for radical change in Europe he will say things like:

"The unofficial anthem of the European Union, heard at numerous political cultural and sporting events, is the Ode an die Freude melody from the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony: a true ‘empty signifier’ that can stand for anything.

……. However, before we dismiss the fourth movement as a piece ‘destroyed through social usage’ as Adorno puts it, let us note some peculiarities of its structure.…..The finale is a weird mixture of Orientalism and regression into late 18th century classicism, a double retreat from the historical present, a silent admission of the purely fantastical joy of all-encompassing brotherhood. If ever there was a music that literally ‘deconstructs itself’, this is it…Does the same not hold true for Europe today?…..What we need is a totally new definition of Europe itself.

…..Europe lies in the great pincers between America on the one side and China on the other…….There is effectively a need for us Europeans for what Heidegger called interpretive confrontation with others as well as with Europe’s own past, from its ancient Judeo-Christian roots to the recently deceased idea of the Welfare State. Europe is today split between the so-called Anglo-Saxon model, which asks for acceptance of ‘modernization’ (adaptation to the rules of the new global order) - and the French-German model - which asks us to save as much as possible of the ‘old European’ welfare state."

Zizek argues that the aim of Europeans should not be ‘globalization with a human face’, but to “step into the unknown”, the only alternative being slow decay, “the transformation of Europe into a destination for nostalgic cultural tourism”.  (In previous blogs I have referred to Europe as a museum….)

While Horvath advocates "direct democracy as a necessary corrective (and possibly a true alternative) to electoral democracy and ‘partitocracy’”, he has claimed that "it is becoming more and more clear that a movement without a party is impotent, and that a party without a movement can only repeat the failures of the past”. (Both authors participated in Occupy’s New York saga, whose critics claimed that it lacked a program…) But Zizek cannot be content with common-sense solutions. He calls for “a sectarian split from the standard European legacy”. (Only by) “cutting ourselves off from the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the renewed European legacy alive.” Readers will find that legacy in quips scattered throughout the book.

Horvath is particularly concerned over the rise of fascism in Europe. During the second world war, the Ustashi government of his country, Croatia, was Hitler’s ally, and as with the Banderistas in Ukraine, the Ustashis still have fervent descendants today. Tsipras believes that to make its voice heard within the EU, making a difference for itself and others, Croatia would have to replace one-way communication with Brussels by becoming part of large solidarity networks both within the EU and the rest of the Balkans. During a talk at the Subversive Film Festival in Zagreb, he called upon Croatia to “join the struggle for a European Union that would be different from the one currently dominated by neoliberal ideology and austerity measures, based instead on the principles of democratic participation, social justice and international solidarity.”

Horvath responds by pointing out that Croatia’s entry into the EU in July 2013 effectively separated it from its historical environment formed by the other former Yugoslav states Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. When it voted to outlaw gay marriage, its footballers saw in this democratic decision a tribute to their Nazi revival. They incited the crowd at a major football stadium to salute the Croatian collaborators of the Nazi regime who had sent tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and others to concentration camps. Here, Horvath sees his country as part of the “rotten heart of Europe”, in which fascism rises again.

This book by scholars from two of Europe’s smallest countries, Croatia and Slovenia, spotlights events that may have gone unnoticed by their larger neighbors, but were part of the dense fabric of European life that most Americans only know as tourists. One of the events that Americans probably didn’t hear about was the staging by Susan Sontag of ‘Waiting for Godot’ during the three year siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in the nineteen-nineties. During this longest capital city siege in history, a number of theaters remained active, often by candlelight.  According to Horvath:

"Overall the city had 182 premieres attended by upwards of a million playgoers. While the Croatian and Serbian theatre scenes at the time were focused mainly on national(ist) issues, Bosnian theatre was international in the true sense of the word: Alkestis, Godot, Hair and In the Country of Last Things, were among the plays to grace the Sarajevo stage during the siege."

Referring to a week of protests against the privatizations that mark the transformation of Europe from a comfortable welfare state into another cog in the wheel of globalization, he asks:

"What does the ‘theatre under occupation’ from the 1990’s have in common with the people’s uprising in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 2014? According to a participant in Susan Sontag’s Godot: “Before the war, everyone was waiting for his own Godot. Now 300,000 people were waiting for one and the same Godot.” Borrowing a slogan from Obama, Horvath says, “We were the Godot we were waiting for."

I am gratified that Tsipras, Zizek and Horvath agree with me ( that the 2008 crisis fomented by Wall Street was part of Empire’s plan to destroy the Welfare State, and that EU bureaucrats answer to Washington via London. (Prime Minister David Cameron, who brought Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’ (to austerity) into the 21st century, is making the rounds of European capitals, seeking a two-tier EU and threatening a referendum to leave if he fails to get his way. As of this morning, he appears to have won over Angela Merkel, an indication that she is not ready to lead the EU away from Washington by severing important ties to its local representative.

Very differently, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the small countries that once made up Yugoslavia want to revive the welfare state under more democratic conditions. But they also recognize that there may no longer be time for conservatives to organize a two-tier Europe. Seeing only that they could not share the far-right’s stigmatization of brown people, they failed to recognize that immigration from Africa and the Middle East was unstoppable, until thousands drowned in the Mediterranean in the attempt. Suddenly, it became clear that NATO’s decision to force regime change in Libya and Syria had resulted failed states causing desperate populations to surge toward Europe, while the US remained comfortably out of reach a wide ocean away. 

In a chapter titled “I’m Not Racist But….The Blacks Are Coming!”, Horvath shows that people in the small states of the former Yugoslavia that did not have African colonies and had not previously drawn African immigrants, are having the same reaction as the French or Germans did decades ago: “When someone comes directly from Africa to a European capital he kind of stands out a little, you know.” Horvath notes that “in Croatia, previously there were the Serbs, and now there are the blacks,” equally perceived as ‘Others’. But Europe’s small countries are not the only ones to experience immigration negatively: “In the Italian town of Lucca the city council voted to outlaw the selling of foreign foods in the old city, and soon Milan voted a law to protect “local specialties from the influence of foreign cuisines”. (Foods and alcohols that carry a label attesting to their local origin are prized by tourists.) For Horvath, “culinary racism is not some excessive anomaly, but should be seen as part of the general trend toward xenophobia.”

As Europe comes to grips with a growing number of asylum-seekers, the left’s search for a 21st century civilization democratically based on equity may be doomed: after sixty-five years of American domination, Europe may not have time to transition to an independent entity before becoming an outpost of the Islamic world. On the other hand, as Karen Armstrong reminds us, Islam demands that humans treat each other with equity, dignity and respect, thus Europe will be an important region in which Islam’s reformation plays out.'s+Reformation.

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