Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book review: Democracy Without Nations? Pierre Manent, 2006

In Democracy Without Nations? Pierre Manent poses an interesting and important question, fails to answer it convincingly, but in tackling it leaves it all the more interesting.

The question, more fully articulated than in the book's title, is essentially: can Europe survive without its nations?

Manent's answer is no. Manent loves nations, and admits as much: "my own national passion, which is undoubtedly quite real". But why does he think Europe can't do without them?

He gives three reasons.

The least convincing is that "After more than half a century of trying, the European enterprise, the effort "to construct Europe", has not succeeded in overcoming our old nations."

The easiest demonstration that this is unconvincing is that Manent has felt the need to write his book: he feels the nation needs to be defended. Nations can't be both weak enough to be in existential crisis and strong enough to necessitate their continued existence. Manent is trying to have his cake and eat it.

Second, he likes the size of nations - they're "at once quite ample and neatly circumscribed". They're "the middle ground between the puny and the immense, the petty and the limitless".

That's a more reasonable point, but it overlooks the fact that China is a nation of about 10 million square kilometers and 1.3 billion people, whereas Luxembourg is a nation of 2.5 thousand square kilometers and half a million people.

Perhaps these nations are absurd outliers - the federal nature of the USA and India points to that - but the fact remains that China, Luxembourg, the USA and India are all reasonably well-functioning nations. There's nothing necessary about the size of the UK, France and Germany.

Manent does ask whether Europe can become the new nation that subsumes existing European nations, as I'm implying is a viable course, but he seems to reject the viability of this possibility simply because it hasn't happened yet, as in point 1. He criticizes Europe's "refusal to define itself politically", or in terms of either a territory or a population.

Although I find this unconvincing in terms of the answer to the overarching question, I think Manent has a point, and this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. He says "Europe cannot construct itself meaningfully unless Europeans in the various nations identify themselves with a common European political action", and I agree with him; but he ends the sentence with "and for the foreseeable future that means with the common action of European nations", and there I disagree.

Firstly: has Britain defined itself any better than Europe? Has France? Second, take the Pirate Parties, which are uniting people worldwide around a single thread of causes.

Manent touches on this - on how globalisation is allowing or causing people to identify with each other across the world based on shared interests and experiences - but he says that "Communication by itself does not create a true bond among people [...]", and here again we diverge.

Although I agree that "Today's popular term identity is a terribly impoverished substitute for the older term community", I think he's mistaken that nations can any longer be the site of community, if they ever were. Do I really identify more with a British criminal in Newcastle or a British Baron in Cornwall than I do with someone from another country who lives alongside me in London and shares my work ethic and lifestyle? Non, nein.

The scale of community is dozens or hundreds, or a few miles, or dozens of conversations; the scale of politics ...? For me, as is enshrined in the EU's subsidiarity, it depends on the scale of the problem.

Finally, and perhaps most convincingly, Manent criticizes the effectiveness of the EU's instruments, which he says "prevent any individual or collective action that is not the simple application of a rule or regulation authorising rights". Unfortunately he provides no examples and barely elaborates; the argument is the most convincing of the three because of what has happened in Europe to countries like Greece since the financial crisis, but DWN? was written before the crash, and I don't know enough about institutions like the European Central Bank to be able to judge whether their weaknesses are terminal or skin-deep. That's covered by the next book I'll read; for the time being all I can say is that Manent is too brief on this point.

So DWN? failed to convince me that the nation must remain the primary site of politics, although I'm happy to concede it could well remain a secondary or tertiary one. Questions about the level at which democracy works best and about how people will associate in this globalised age are fascinating ones, and DWN? is a fairly though-provoking read even if far short of being the definitive text. Probably no such text exists yet...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Brexit #1: sovereignty

In my flat we have a cleaning rota. There are five of us, and every ten days one of us has to clean all of the communal areas. The others don't have to do anything. And then we rotate.

In flats I've lived in previously we've done it differently. In my last place there were three of us and every two weeks we each did one of the three communal areas. When I lived with an ex we did everything between us once a week. In another place we had a cleaner.

My point is that nobody tells us how to clean up after ourselves: we get to decide for ourselves. The Mayor of London's office hasn't decreed that crumbs must be swept on Thursdays and hobs de-greased on Sundays. Boris didn't care, and neither does Sadiq.

But Islington North, the constituency I live in, can issue fixed penalty notices for littering. Islington North Council has decreed it doesn't want some streets deciding that the gutters are a good place to dispose of rubbish while other streets opt for the bushes. Everyone has to use the bins provided.

What you have there is an example of subsidiarity, a principle the EU runs on. It basically says that rules should get made at the lowest level that makes sense. At some point in time every nation on Earth decided that murder shouldn't be allowed, so they all made that illegal at the national level. In London, for example, I can't just wait for you to cross over to Islington South and Finsbury and then crossbow you with impunity. And not even Zac Goldsmith was campaigning to change that, even if only because he wouldn't have had the power to follow through.

We've been hearing a lot about sovereignty in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. "Vote leave to reclaim Britain's sovereignty", outers say. And yes, EU law does override British law, and yes, according to Full Fact, somewhere between 15 and 50% of new British laws are made in Brussels.

But are we all running around trying to remember whether murder and sweeping up crumbs on Tuesdays are illegal? No, we're not, because EU laws mostly involve trade - the EU's main reason for existing is the single European market - and the environment. Enough people have agreed that starving due to climate change is a bad idea for the EU to decide that Europe-wide laws are necessary to stop a few bad apples smothering the rest of the barrel in fumes.

Did you get a say in that? Well, you had a say in it in the same way you had a say in your local council's littering policies, or the nation's stance on murder. You got to vote for an MEP candidate for the European Parliament, and you got to vote for your national government, which is represented on the European Council, and together these are the two bodies that decide on EU laws. And the group of MEPs that got the most votes picked the head of the European Commission, which is the body that drafts the laws for the Parliament and Council to shape. And if you don't like what any of the candidates are saying, well, don't worry, because you get to run as one yourself if you want to.

Does Britain have more of a say over EU law than Germany? No. Can Britain be outvoted by the other EU nationals collectively? Yes.  Do I have more of a say over my flat's cleaning rota than any of my housemates? No. Can they collectively outvote me? Yes. That's democracy and that's subsidiarity and that's sovereignty in a globalised world where the challenges we face are no longer confined to 50-odd other tribe members. And if you ask me, that's a good way of doing things.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Quotes #3: Saul Bellow

I liked this column by Jay Rayner in the Guardian, on what an exasperatingly circumscribing retort is "first-world problems", with the standfirst:

"It is possible to disapprove of machine-cut jamon and to feel outrage over Syria at the same time."

I often find the FWP retort quite amusing, but that doesn't mean I think it should be used to shut down consideration of anything other than disease, murder and starvation.

Here's Saul Bellow saying something similar in his novel More Die of Heartbreak:

"The sufferings of freedom also had to be considered. Otherwise we would be conceding a higher standard to totalitarianism, saying that only oppression could keep us honest."

Quotes #2: Jacques Herzog. Leonardo da Vinci's disgust and disbelief

For some reason I'm very struck by this comment from the architect Jacques Herzog in Rowan Moore's Guardian article about Herzog and his architectural partner, Pierre de Meuron. Here's the full paragraph for context:

Artists, says Herzog, are much better at uncertainty and instability than architects. He unexpectedly cites Leonardo da Vinci and the way he painted an angel’s wings: “You can see he was not a believer. When he paints the joint where the wings meet, when he has to work out how you attach a wing, you get a sense of his disgust and disbelief.” Great names of architecture, by contrast, seem to have no such doubt. “They were almost religious about their work, a bit absurd. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier: how can they be such heroes?”

That paragraph, or Herzog's point, doesn't make much sense to me. The part about architects being religious about their work or absurd is fine, but if artists are "better" at uncertainty, why can Herzog apparently discern da Vinci's disgust? Shouldn't it be undetectable?

So it's not that I think Herzog makes a good point: it's the assertion he makes that strikes me.

To say that da Vinci, possibly the most revered artist of all, was so unbelieving as to be unable to keep disgust out of his depictions of angels' wings! Mein Gott! 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book review: The European Identity, Stephen Green, 2015, Haus Curiosities

You'd expect a Tory peer to be Euroskeptic, but Stephen Green is also a former banker, and the finance industry is highly Europhile. Which is my roundabout way of saying: forget who Stephen Green is, unless you think it lends him authority.

The European Identity is a one- or two-sitting read that considers two things: how much Europeans have in common, and what that means for Britain. I suspect it isn't very original, but it is very well written and even more timely, given we British are 6 weeks away from voting on whether we want to remain in the EU.

Green is withering in his assessment of Britain's and even Europe's place in the world, setting out how the vast size of China and India will inevitably see Europe continue to decline. Some may find that unpatriotic; I found it refreshing.

He then provides a fascinating whirlwind summary of the philosophies that he thinks resulted in substantial differences in the characters of the people of the EU's big three: the UK, France and Germany. Brits are pragmatists, he says, the French are idealists, and the Germans are ... well, I didn't quite get that. Fantasists, maybe. But anyway, more importantly, he thinks we have more in common than we have in difference - namely:

"a commitment to rationalism, democracy, individual rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, social compassion..."

True of everyone, you might think, but social compassion and the US? Individual rights and Asia? The rule of law and Russia? Not so much.

If the book has a flaw, it's that it concludes with us exactly where we are today. With a loose alignment of European nations, cooperating where subsidiarity requires it and leaving well alone where national differences are cause for celebration or anyway too entrenched to quash. Which is all well and good, but a) people who aren't currently convinced are not going to read European Identity and b) even if they did, I don't think it would convince them. It's a great read, but it's more thought-provoking and informative than it is comprehensively or combatively convincing.

But then, it only professes to deal with identity: it leaves other books to deal with racism, job security, pressure on services, stifling bureaucracy ... And what it does it does very well.

Monday, 2 May 2016

On dancing

Why are some of us self-conscious about dancing? I myself am happy to share my intimate thoughts with people on this blog and elsewhere, with full knowledge that an older, wiser me might well look back and think them pathetic and contemptible, but when it comes to moving rhythmically in public, I need a body-weight's-worth of alcohol to get over the hump of what people might think.


I wonder whether it might have something to do with how you view your body, and whether that in turn might be due to how much trouble it's given you. Throughout my teens, twenties and to a lesser extent still today I've experience problems with my back - nothing much in the grand scheme of things, but enough for me to view my body more as a potential traitor that needs to be cushioned and cajoled, punished and placated than as an ally or a friend. Or as simply me, with no interlocutor.

I am my brain; my body is what will eventually kill me.

So when I'm dancing I'm not moving: I'm pushing a thing around. An unwieldy thing that has hurt me before and won't hesitate to do it again. Something to which I don't feel close without the dissolutive effects of alcohol breaking down barriers.

Or maybe I just don't have any rhythm.