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...

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