Europe’s left-wing republicans and right-wing liberals

Ce billet explique quelques données politiques de l’Europe continentale. Comme la quasi-synonymie entre «libéral» et «de droite» en France. On parle aussi de Derrida et Habermas et leur initiative en faveur d’un «noyau fort» européen.

  • 2004-07-27

/ˌser.ənˈdɪp.ɪ.ti/ is definitely taking the risk of becoming, quite unintentionally, something like a Language Log commentary column. It is a little humiliating to admit that I can’t seem to be able to keep up with the Language Log linguists, and today I probably ought to have retired to the bed with a cup of hot milk, a handful of aspirin and a good murder mystery to nurse my inflamed airways. But this is impossible; I just can’t. The inexhaustible Mark Lieberman has opened not just a can of worms, but the entire contents of a worm farm. The topics at issue are the notion of “core Europe” (“Kerneuropa“), apparently embraced by Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, the proper locus on the European left-right political spectrum of this notion on the one hand and of the two philosophers on the other hand, the relationship between “intellectuals” and “conservatives” — opposed? identical? occasionally collaborating? — and finally, the general meaning of the terms of European politics and intellectual debate and how they (don’t) jibe with those an American intellectual would employ.

Two disclaimers first: I know a bit about how all this is framed in France and Germany, a bit less about the UK and Italy, and hardly anything about the other European countries. Everything I am going to write is to be understood as applying to these countries only, and in particular to what the British call the Continent. Secondly, even what little I understand about all this mess vastly exceeds the scope of a blog entry.

First question: Liberal as opposed to Conservative. This one has already been shoved out of the way by Fernando Pereira in an email to Mark Lieberman: Over here, “liberal” and “conservative” are closer to being synonyms than antonyms. That’s why the anti-core-Europe blog — the one that Mark Lieberman finds so puzzling, and it is, replacing European common debate by a common interest in football — so savagely attacked the chairman of the German liberal-democratic party (FDP): for being an economical laissez faire liberal, and therefore anti-union, working towards a reduction of hard-fought-for social welfare rights. A liberal politician would typically reject the idea that corporations have social responsibilities, that education and the health system (etc.) should be financed out of general taxation or national insurance, that income-tax rates should be progressive. Therefore, I won’t use the term “liberal” when referring to what is seen as left-wing here; thankfully, “conservative” and “right-wing” are close in meaning.

First digression: I originally intended to blog about John Kerry, who is not only perfectly fluent in French, even if, in the US, he has to keep silent about his skills, but even has a French first cousin, the politician Brice Lalonde. On first sight you would imagine these two being cousins fits very well, in political terms: Kerry is the “left-wing” candidate (to be) in the upcoming US presidential elections and Lalonde used to be an early member of the Green party and was Minister of Environment in a left-wing government under president Mitterrand. But that’s not the entire story. Lalonde, who has travelled to Boston to lend (moral?) support to Kerry, left the Green party in the mid 80s and underwent a large shift to the right. He is now an outspoken opponent of linking together environmental issues and traditional left-wing (socialist) positions, supports Jacques Chirac and considers himself politically closest to Alain Madelin. Madelin is the former leader of Démocracie Libérale (ah, there’s the “liberal”!), a right-wing party now swallowed up by Chiracs UMP, formerly UMP, formerly — before DL joined in — RPR. DL and Madelin embody the liberal element of the France political right: on the left-right spectrum they are right in the middle of right-wing. But there is a strange twist to the Kerry/Lalonde comparison. Seen from over here, the US Democrats often look and feel as if they’d fit smack in the middle of our right-wingers. Or, in German terms, with the (small, currently right-leaning, but generally to the left of the big CDU) liberal-democratic party.

Second digression: There are actually republicans in France; a lot, even. But again, careful! The term refers to those who focus on les valeurs républicaines: liberty, equality and secularism; oh, and the parent pauvre fraternity (but that one is usually left aside). French republicanism covers vast parts of the left and the right; let’s say everything except the right-wing extremists, the communists (which are not quite out of fashion in France yet), part of the Greens and a small fraction of the socialists. It makes apparent left-wingers embrace actions like expelling hijab-wearing young teenage girls from school, or enforcing tough anti-immigration policies. It is also the reason why you’ll never, ever hear M. Chriac appeal to God in public. Or why MP Christine Boutin’s (she is situated on the right-most edge of the parliamentary right) brandishing a bible in the National Assembly in 1998 was widely regarded as an offensive, even obscene act. Boutin, a French anti-republican would certainly be a Republican had she happened to be a US politician.

Second Question: Why is “core Europe” as a notion or goal considered conservative? Strictly speaking, it isn’t; practically, it often is. The idea far predates the 2003 Derrida/Habermas/Eco/et al. initiative. European (EU) integration, some said, should be accelerated, and common, super-national institutions “with teeth” created by those nations that are ready to go ahead: France, Germany, BeNeLux, for example. Let’s just forget about the British, who can’t get over their euroscepticism and their lost empire. Let’s also not admit any new members until we have sorted out a powerful EU super-state. Conservative politicians (of the euro-friendly brand, and in particular free market conservatives, ie liberals) didn’t see much wrong with this approach while some of the more left-leaning pointed out that it would have been unjust, undemocratic and discriminatory towards, say, Poland and the other former Soviet states who absolutely wanted to join the EU as soon as possible. In this sense, of course, the “core Europe” idea has lost. The opinions didn’t and don’t always run along party-lines, however.

There is a second aspect to the “core Europe” concept, which smacks even more of conservatism: for some, “core Europe” means what they deem to be the “real” Europe, defined in terms of European history and common values. In short: the nations that go back to the Christian Middle Ages; as opposed to the former Ottoman empire, of course. In this sense, “core Europe” proponents are opposed to Turkey becoming an EU member, even if and whey they clean up their human rights record over there, and tend to treat EU citizens or residents whose families have come over from former (French, British …) colonies as less European than the rest of us.

Third Question: But what the hell has this to do with Habermas and Derrida?! Well, two answers:

  1. A lot. Painting with a very broad brush: pro-EU conservatives dream of two things, an even more liberalised market — you wouldn’t find Derrida or Habermas advocate anything of this kind — and a powerful political role for the EU on the world scene, mighty enough to stand up to the US, anyway. And that’s where some conservatives might have rubbed their hands with glee when, last year, Derrida and Habermas called for a more unified Europe “to balance out the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States”; and they advocated this even at the cost of European integration not proceeding at a single speed, of some countries being allowed to advance out of step with the rest. Developing Euro-patriotism or entering the US-dominated playing field of world hegemony really doesn’t sound anywhere near left-wing.
  2. Not much, if anything. Derrida and Habermas (they were the ringleaders, but Rorty, Eco, Muschg and other intellectuals also published articles all over Europe) were chiefly criticised for holding an admirable but politically unrealistic position. How on earth could an EU work, politically, if the members’ ranks, rights and degrees of involvement varied all over the place? Wouldn’t it be much more important to finally create democratic EU institutions, to find a way to scrap agricultural subsidies without killing the farming sector (and with it a myriad of local traditions) and to make the EU more credible in the global struggle against poverty and for equality? Furthermore, D & H wrote as intellectuals, not as philosophers or politicians, and did so at a moment that stands out in many people’s memories. I count myself among those who were feeling deeply opposed to the USA going to war against Iraq, flaunting international law and institutions; millions took to the streets (as someone who challenges moronic anti-Americanism whenever I can, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a vast majority of the marchers did their best to make it clear that they were anti-Bush and his administration, not against the US people); we were living in reasonably prosperous circumstances and were enjoying a lively public debate, but we couldn’t do a damn thing against what was happening. Worse, some of our governments didn’t care a bit about the public opinion in their countries and, mimicking the UK, didn’t even consider defining a common EU position, but joined or supported the USA instead. That’s where Derrida and Habermas’ intellectual rallying cry came in. I don’t, frankly, believe that their analysis of “European values” (a lot of which quite Kantian) was up to par with their usual philosophical standards. The idea was that it was the intellectuals’ role, even duty, to say something, and this was what they came up with.

Last Question: Derrida’s and Habermas’ lefty intellectual credentials are beyond question then? That’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Habermas is certainly labelled “left-wing” in Germany, and his Frankfurt School is supposed to follow in the footsteps of Adorno and Horkheimer. But I admit I’ve never been able to make much sense of his philosophy (unlike Derrida’s or even Adorno/Horkheimer’s: what little I’ve been able to wrap my mind around does make a sense to me — but the amount too insignificant for me to claim to understand their work; still, read on: I’m almost done). As philosophers, despite the vast differences between them, they occupy loci opposite positivism and empiricism. Both don’t take notions like “progress” at face value and point out that thinking in terms of logical premises and conclusions is insufficient to account for what is going on in an argument, a debate or in communication in general. Derrida has this, well, technique of always pushing two apparently contradictory points at once; and I have often found the results enlightening (his written work may be difficult, but he is a superb, crystal-clear lecturer, which amazed me when I first heard him speak). This slippery way of thinking is considered by some (this link leads to some pro- and anti-Derrida points) as an “anything goes” type of relativism. Still, doesn’t uncovering the instablilty of the notions of “progress”, “deduction”, “logic” etc. constitute, in some renewed sense, a type of (philosophical) progress? On the other hand, the slippery character of their philosophy makes them more open than others to claims of ownership on their thinking by almost any political ideology. They may protest, but it takes a bit of intellectual effort to prove or disprove such a claim. On yet another hand (how many hands are there?), adopting a brand of anti-positivist philosophy, and be it by thinkers who are or pretend to be in the (US) “progressive” or “liberal” camp, doesn’t in itself guarantee that left-wing social or political goals will be furthered. Just think of Heidegger…

Finally, I have intentionally avoided the word “postmodernism”; I believe this kaleidoscopic term would have blurred the issues even further.

1 comment(s) for 'Europe’s left-wing republicans and right-wing liberals'

  1. (Comment, 2004-08-08 05:01 )

    Thank you for that. It is very difficult here to criticize the two-party stranglehold on American politics — the Republocratic system is not all that different from the PRI in Mexico — without being accused of belonging to a “lunatic left” underwritten by the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” And a think piece that uses the name “Derrida” in the same paragraph with the phrase “agricultural subsidies”? You might as well put on a clown suit and dance for nickels in a waterfront bar. We Americans like to mock Europeans for their need to mix metaphysics in with their traffic regulations. Europeans like to observe that our contribution to the intellectual foundations of politics has been “voodoo economics” — a polite way of saying that we are as corrupted by the almighty dollar as the Latin American dictatorships we prop up.

    Personally, I like gooey, stinky cheese; I frequent the epicerie up the block, and I can muster a polite laugh in the right places when an esoteric joke is told about Edmund Husserl and a camel. And I think what we are witnessing in electoral politics this year is final conversion of our political spectrum to meaningless grayscale, all in the name of “national unity” in the “war on terror.” How I wish I could vote in a proportional national elections for some kind of Fiscal Conservative-Christian Social Democratic coalition government that would divvy up the ministries, hash out some priorities, and proceed to getting stuff done, instead of debating a useless gay-marriage constitutional amendment on the floor of the Senate for the C-SPAN cameras.