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The philosophers for Europe
by Prof. Francesco Tampoia
2012-07-03 09:31:29
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On May 25 -2010 Guardian, about two years ago, Étienne Balibar wrote of EU as a ‘dead political project’. He discussed on a series of questions: the possible default of Greece, the expansive European rescue loan, the condition of devastating budget cuts, the Portuguese and Spanish debts, the threat on the value and the very existence of the euro, and the announcement of budget austerity measures in several member states.

Clearly, this is only the beginning of a very heavy crisis. The euro is the weak link in the chain, and so is Europe itself. There can be little doubt that catastrophic consequences are coming. The Greeks have been the first victims, but they will hardly be the last, of a politics of ‘rescuing the European currency’, measures which all citizens ought to be allowed to debate, because all of them will be affected by the outcome. However, the discussion is deeply biased, because essential determinations are hidden or dismissed.

Balibar went on with some reflections. ‘If in its current form, under the influence of the dominant social forces, the European construction may have produced some degree of institutional harmonisation, and generalised some fundamental rights- which is not negligible- it has not produced a convergent evolution of national economies, a zone of shared prosperity. Some countries are dominant, others are dominated. The peoples of Europe may not have antagonistic interests, but the nations increasingly do.

As it is well known any Keynesian strategy to generate public ‘trust’ in the economy rests on three interdependent pillars: a stable currency, a rational system of taxes, but also a social policy, aiming at full employment. This third aspect has been quasi -systematically ignored in most current commentaries. Furthermore, all this debate concerning the euro monetary system and the future of Europe will remain entirely abstract unless it is articulated to the real trends of globalisation, which the financial crisis will powerfully accelerate, unless they are politically addressed by the peoples which they affect and their leaders.

Balibar added ‘We are witnessing a transition from one form of international competition to another: no longer (mainly) a competition among productive capitals, but a competition among national territories, which use tax exemptions and pressure on the wages of labour to attract more floating capital than their neighbours.’ Now, clearly, whether Europe works as an effective system of solidarity among its members to protect them from ‘systemic risks’, or simply sets a juridical framework to promote a greater degree of competition among them, will determine the future of Europe politically, socially, and culturally.

There is also a very important tendency: a transformation of the international division of labour, which radically destabilises the distribution of employment in the world. This is a new global structure where north and south, east and west are now exchanging their places. And, Europe, or most of it, will experience a brutal increase of inequalities: a collapsing of the middle classes, a shrinking of skilled jobs, a displacement of ‘volatile’ productive industries, a regression of welfare and social rights, and a destruction of cultural industries and general public services.

At this point we cannot help asking: is this the beginning of the end for the EU, a construction that started 50 years ago on the basis of an age-old utopia, but now proves unable to fulfil its promises? The answer, unfortunately, is yes: sooner or later, this will be inevitable, and possibly not without some violent turmoil... Unless it finds the capacity to start again on radically new bases, Europe is a dead political project.

To be sure the breaking of the EU would inevitably abandon its peoples to the hazards of globalisation to an even greater degree on the one hand. On the other, a new foundation of Europe does not guarantee any success, but at least it gives her a chance of gaining some geopolitical leverage. With one condition, that all the challenges involved in the idea of an original form of post-national federation are seriously and courageously met. With the assumption that a new sharp democracy cannot avoid confronting the current crisis of liberalism -- the fact that liberalism as an ideology is exhausted, that neo-liberalism is a facade, and that we live in a new political climate. More, these days the worldwide neo-liberalism has embraced an extremely savage form of capitalism, especially when it makes use and abuse of the ideas of democracy and liberty as the justification for the operation of neoliberal capitalism and practice of financial imperialism.

These involve setting up a common public authority, which is neither a state nor a simple governance of politicians and experts; securing genuine equality among the nations, thus fighting against reactionary nationalisms; above all reviving democracy in the European space and resisting the current processes of ‘de-democratisation’ and ‘statism without a State’, so dear to neoliberalism. Once again, the ground of democracy and freedom becomes an issue; once again democracy simply needs to re-affirm itself. Something obvious should have been long acknowledged: there will be no progress towards federalism in Europe if democracy itself does not progress beyond the existing forms, allowing an increased influence for the people(s) in the supranational institutions.

Does this mean that, in order to reverse the course of recent history, to shake the lethargy of a decaying political construction, we need something like a European movement, a simultaneous movement or a peaceful insurrection of popular masses who will be voicing their anger as victims of the crisis against its authors and beneficiaries, and calling for a control ‘from below’ over the secret bargainings and deals made by markets, banks, and states? Yes, indeed.

At the same time, according to Balibar the question concerns the intellectuals: what should and could be a democratically elaborated political action against the crisis at the European level? It is the task of progressive intellectuals, whether they see themselves as reformists or revolutionaries, namely to discuss this subject and take risks. If they fail to do it, they will have no excuse.

This the realistic and, at the same time, pessimistic picture sketched by Balibar: unless it finds the capacity to start again on radically new bases, Europe is a dead political project.



On November 25- 2011, Der Spiegel- On line International, Jürgen Habermas in an interview stands for The Philosopher's Mission to Save the EU. He gets really angry. He is nothing short of furious -- because he takes it all personally, ‘he leans forward; he leans backward. He arranges his fidgety hands to illustrate his tirades before allowing them to fall back to his lap. He simply has no desire to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history’. And, in succession ‘I am speaking here as a citizen’ he says. ‘I would rather be sitting back home at my desk, believe me. But this is too important. Everyone has to understand that we have critical decisions facing us. That is why I am so involved in this debate. The European project can no longer continue in elite modus.’ As known, Europe is his lifelong project; it is the project of his generation, of the European Constitution.  Usually he says clever things like: ‘In this crisis, functional and systematic imperatives collide’ -- referring to sovereign debts and the pressure of the markets. Sometimes he shakes his head in consternation and says: ‘It is simply unacceptable, simply unacceptable’ -- referring to the EU diktat and Greece's loss of national sovereignty. And then he is really angry again: ‘I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions.’

It is in the nature of this crisis that philosophy and bar-room politics occasionally find themselves on an equal footing. It is also in the nature of this crisis that too many people say too much, and we have someone who has approached the problems systematically, as Habermas has done in his Zur Verfassung Europas (On Europe's Constitution), just published book.

Zur Verfassung Europas is basically a long essay in which Habermas describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. He says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d'état.

But, does he have an answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take?

Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a ‘post-democracy’. The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has ‘an odd, suspended position,’ without really being responsible for what it does. Habermas sees a divided Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head.

Yet, unlike Balibar, Habermas is a virtually unshakable optimist. His problem as a philosopher has always been that he appears a bit humdrum because, despite all the big words, he is basically rather intelligible. He took his cultivated rage from Marx, his keen view of modernity from Freud and his clarity from the American pragmatists. He has always been a friendly elucidator, a rationalist and an anti-romanticist. Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.

‘Sometime after 2008’ says Habermas ‘I understood that the process of expansion, integration and democratization does not automatically move forward of its own accord, that it is reversible, that for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I did not think this was possible. We have reached a crossroads.’

He is a child of the war and perseveres, even when it seems like he is about to keel over. This is important to understanding why he takes the topic of Europe so personally. It has to do with the evil Germany of yesteryear and the good Europe of tomorrow, with the transformation of past to future, with a continent that was once torn apart by guilt -- and is now torn apart by debt. He speaks of a lack of political union and of ‘embedded capitalism,’ a term he uses to describe a market economy controlled by politics. He makes the amorphous entity Brussels tangible in its contradictions, and points to the fact that the decisions of the European Council, which permeate our everyday life, basically have no legal, legitimate basis. He rails against ‘political defeatism’ and begins the process of building a positive vision for Europe from the rubble of his analysis. He sketches the nation-state as a place in which the rights of the citizens are best protected, and how this notion could be implemented on a European level. He says also that states have no rights, ‘only people have rights’, and then he takes the final step and brings the peoples of Europe and the citizens of Europe into position -- they are the actual historical actors in his eyes, not the states, not the governments. It is the citizens who, in the current manner that politics are done, have been reduced to spectators.

In short, his vision is as follows: ‘The citizens of each individual country, who until now have had to accept how responsibilities have been reassigned across sovereign borders, could as European citizens bring their democratic influence to bear on the governments that are currently acting within a constitutional gray area.’

This the Habermas' main point and what has been missing from the vision of Europe: a formula for what is wrong with the current construction. He does not see the EU as a commonwealth of states or as a federation but, rather, as something new. It is a legal construct that the peoples of Europe have agreed upon in concert with the citizens of Europe -- we with ourselves, in other words -- in a dual form and omitting each respective government. Habermas prefers to speak about saving the ‘biotope of old Europe.’

There is an alternative, he says, there is another way aside from the creeping shift in power that we are currently witnessing. The media must-it is an imperative- help citizens understand the enormous extent to which the EU influences their lives. And the politicians would certainly understand the enormous pressure that would fall upon them if Europe failed. The EU ‘should’ be democratized.



All Habermas offers is the kind of vision that a constitutional theorist is capable of formulating: the ‘global community’ will have to sort it out. In the midst of the crisis, he still sees ‘the example of the European Union's elaborated concept of a constitutional cooperation between citizens and states’ as the best way to build the ‘global community of citizens’. He is, after all, a pragmatic optimist. He does not say what steps will take us from worse off to better off. If the European project fails,’ he says, ‘then there is the question of how long it will take to reach the status quo again. Remember the German Revolution of 1848: When it failed, it took us 100 years to regain the same level of democracy as before.’ A vague future and a warning from the past – that is what Habermas offers us. The present is, at least for the time being, unattainable.

As it is evident the Habermas’vision is a sort of neo-federalist model that gives wings to imagination and which in the different national arenas unchains an ample, public and dramatic debate on common interests. Only in such a way a European integrated politics can enter into action. In his opinion, only countermarked by a common passport European citizens can learn to recognize, beyond their national boundaries, each other as belonging to the same political community. The civic solidarity, till now limited to the national state must enlarge to that of citizens of Union so that, for example, German and Greek are ready to give themselves reciprocal guarantee. The Habermas’model, in sum, substantiates a mayor cohesion among the countries of European Union, an enlarged basis of solidarity that aims at something like a European demos.

No doubt, the Habermasian notion of constitutional patriotism of Europeans remains ongoing, grounded in the future. And the actual democratic deficit is not simply an institutional phenomenon, which concerns the limited powers of the European Parliament, it is also a deficit of the public sphere and of the formation of political will. The institutional manoeuvring is possible only if so far as institutional change goes hand in hand with real processes of creation of a European public sphere.

The new European public sphere would be an arena in which the Europeans participate in discussion about matters of common concern, in an atmosphere free of coercion or dependencies that would incline individuals toward acquiescence or silence. Habermas’s institutional concerns centre on empowering voice and on disenabling other means of collective judgement within democratic arenas-coercion, markets, and tradition.    

Today, the nation-state remains an indispensable intermediary in European politics. The European civic duties, as they presently exist, can be executed only indirectly, through nation-state administrations; yet actions can be taken on the European stage only on the basis of nation-state empowerment of European authorities. Today, the EU is marked out as a state in suspension between the inter-governmental and neo-federal models.

In order to give the European citizens more democratic control directly (and not through their national governments) over the representatives of European sovereignty (the Council, the Commission and the Court) Habermas has believed in a European Constitution, unfortunately the plan has failed.

What kind of institutional and political architecture for Europe? Maybe an empirical experiment that assumes the form of model in the inner kind of post-modern federation? While it seems difficult to balance the institutions and the citizenship, to maintain stability and liberty, a network model could again risks becoming an instrument into the hands of burocracy. Will the European Union, born after the long season of modernity, succeed in gaining politics and power presently appearing divided and follow different route? 

 In re-formulating and raising the main points of human existence and welfare it seems that Europe cannot help giving itself a kind of post-modern constitutional frame grounded on ethical values, a kind of totally new and cosmopolitan model.

 We need to re-address the issue of Europe. A rethink of the institutional and political architecture is needed. The way in which the European Union exercises its powers needs to be clarified.



É. Balibar, Europe is a dead political project, forthcoming paper in Theory and Event, June issue journal –Johns Hopkins-University Press 2012

J. Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia, Article by J. Habermas  in Media and Cultural Studies, edited by Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner-Blackwell Publishing 2001.

J. Habermas, Zur Verfassung Europas, Ein Essay, Edition suhrkamp, SV (On Europe's Constitution), Berlin 2011.

F. Tampoia, Actos VII Congreso “Cultura  Europea” Pamplona 2005 – “Philosophers and Europe: M. Heidegger, G. Gadamer, J. Derrida”.

F. Tampoia ,Voyage to Syracuse, Europe, or the infinite task. Ovimagazine, 2009.

F. Tampoia, Europe: A postmodern model, Neuropean Magazine, 2009

F. Tampoia, Book reviews: Philosophy in Review XXX (2010), Rodolphe Gasché Europe, or The Infinite Task: A Study of a Philosophical Concept. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2009.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-07-04 22:31:18
The above article written by a philosopher goes a long way in laying down the major issues as articulated by eminent European philosophers; issues that need to be urgently debated if the experiment called the European Union is not to end as a tragic failure. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of duty if the philosophers did not contribute to the solution of a crisis that will eventually effect the whole world and in a modest way we should carry that out in the pages of this magazine. But Marx’s caveat need to be kept in mind: the philosopher’s duty is not that of discussing the problems of the world but of changing it. The risk, as most existentialist philosophers would agree, is that we become part not of the solution but of the problem.

Professor Tampoia admirably balances the hard realism of Balibar with the optimism of Habermas and hints the solution is not either or but a dialectical one of both/and. We cannot be naïve and utopical only, but on the other hand we cannot be cynical and nihilistic either. As Dante intimates, sometimes the way down is the way up...

Be that as it may, as Tampoia suggests a neo-federalist movement with common interests and a common heritage remains to be devised for the EU. It is my contention however that the foundation for such a vision rest on a common heritage, that is more spiritual than cultural and more cultural than merely economic, and was in fact envisioned by the founding fathers of the EU and that all that is needed is to re-discover it. While I agree that a “rethinking of the institutional and political architecture” of the EU is needed, I also argue that such a rethinking is to be begun at the point of origins of such an architecture.

That may sound Vichian, even Crocean, but so be it. It is about time to consider that those philosopher now viewed as anachronistic by many fellow-philosophers may hold the key to a future European Renaissance. Tampoia is certainly on the right track when he suggests that such a new architectural framework should be “grounded in ethical values,” which comes close to saying that the solution is to be found not in material or economic principles but in spiritual principles. I think Silone had it on target. What we desperately need is “a conspiracy of hope.”

Francesco Tampoia 2012-07-09 23:55:54
Dear Emanuel

Thanks for your overstated words of esteem and the indirect invitation to return to decisive points about the question Europe. The word crisis, which Edmund Husserl used to justify his reflections on Europe, though limited to the European sciences- like so many others between W.W. I and II- surely is not appropriate to describe the impending imminence, the particular tensions and the heavy economic difficulties of today. Luckily, we are not in front of a European war. We are facing an epochal economic and financial crisis. I want only to remember, as Husserl did, that we Europeans, in that Europeans, are called to fulfil a responsibility, that have been bequeathed to us, i.e. to be faithfully responsible for the European memory. By means of the Balibar’reflections, in my article, I have briefly depicted the current economic condition of Europe. That, as you share, is also cultural and spiritual. Hence, the invitation to all Europeans to re-assume the classical idea of responsibility, to refer to the genealogy of European responsibility. It is urgent to re-address the issue of Europe, to rethink of the institutional and political architecture. The way in which the European Union exercises its powers needs to be clarified.
Again, we are at the ethical question.
All the best

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