Laboratory Europe

Is there a way of making this world hospitable to Europe? For we, Europeans, are not feeling quite at ease in today’’s world.

Heidegger once said that we begin to think about a problem only when things suddenly start behaving in a surprising way. Only then do we move from the sphere of handeln [acting] to the sphere of verhandeln [negotiating]. Until that point the facts are just a part of our everyday experience and we are not fully aware of their existence. Only when things start to go wrong do we transfer them into the realm of observeable nuisances and tasks. They have become problems that need to be dealt with.

Lately things have been playing tricks with us, and some things that used to work no longer do. Something has happened to hospitality.

The notion of hospitality is very old but my attention to it was drawn by a little book Kant wrote in 1784. Discussing the issue of die vollkommene bürgerliche Vereinigung in der Menschengattung [‘a perfect civic union of the human race’, from his Idea For a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose] in brief, hospitality, he envisaged mutual hospitality as a gift of nature that has placed us on the surface of a sphere. Moving on this surface we cannot increase the distance from one another – the further we move away in one direction, the closer are getting to each other in another, and therefore, at a certain point in our history, we are doomed to mutual hospitality.

This book had languished in libraries, unread and gathering dust, until its recent rediscovery. Suddenly it became clear that hospitality is a problem that needs to be dealt with, that it isn’’t the obvious thing it seemed to be at the time of Denis de Rougemont, who claimed it was Europe that had discovered the continents rather that the continents that had discovered Europe, that Europe had conquered one continent after another but has never been conquered by any other continent. As a result, Europe, and only Europe, invented a way of being that was considered worth following by all the other continents. Europe, on the other hand, has never tried to follow any non-European nation.

The evicted

Ryszard Kapuściński – whom I regard as the greatest reporter of the 20th century – had an exceptional instinct that enabled him to penetrate the underlying currents of the world. Some 10 or 15 years ago he noticed that attitudes to Europe had changed. As he was paying his umpteenth visit to the same countries where in the past people used to stop him in the street, grabbing him by the lapel and asking: Mr. Kapuściński, tell us what’’s happening in Europe now?, he realized that nobody was stopping him anymore, nobody was asking any questions. Europe had become just another pawn on the great chessboard, and it was no longer expected that anything extraordinary would come from there.

Ryszard Kapuściński also talked of a qualitative change. There was a time when even a man of average qualifications, not particularly distinguished in his own society, having arrived in, say, Tanzania or Malaysia, would immediately be hailed as the lord and master. He would be assigned key positions, re-creating and multiplying his social standing.

Those days are over. These days every country in the world has its own educated elite and does not expect Europeans to contribute any new solutions to the problems they are struggling with.

Ryszard Kapuściński also noted some threats. In the past Europeans treated the world as their playground, a distraction, whereas today, dangers loom everywhere. The situation is similar to the decline of the Roman Empire. On the margins of its maps were written the words ubi sunt leones – there are lions – i.e. there are wild countries out there and it is not advisable to venture in that direction.

Does this mean that we have now been confined to our own backyard? That we have been evicted for ever? Is that phase of the adventure, when Europe, for better or worse, dictated the course of global history, forever gone? Will Europe never encounter hospitality again?

A legacy for the planet

One of my obsessions has been writing about Europe as a continuous project that has never been completed but that has, in spite of everything, accelerated the pace of change by setting the horizons it aspired to. I wonder if there are any horizons Europe could aspire to today.

It is out of the question that Europe could recreate its military might to the extent that it would compare with that of the USA, a country whose military expenditure equals the total military spending by the twenty-five countries that follow it in the armaments ranking. That Europe’s economic power could compete with what is going on in South America or China, not to mention Japan, is just as unlikely. Nor could it set the pace for the development of science, art, cultural ideas etc.

What then, could be our legacy to our planet? Do we have anything to offer that others need or that they could learn from us?

Cultural critic and scholar George Steiner argues that Europe’’s task is of a spiritual and intellectual nature. Having studied the common distinguishing signs of European nations, including the legacies of Hellenism and Judaism, he emphasizes the fact that Europe represents the greatest linguistic and cultural diversity, an extraordinary mosaic of ways of life. On our continent it is possible for two completely different worlds to be often only 20 kilometres apart, and Europe will perish if it does not fight for its languages, local traditions and social autonomy.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer regards the abundance of diversity as the greatest treasure Europe has managed to preserve and has to offer the world. Living with the Stranger and for the Stranger is a basic human task. Maybe this is the basis of the unique strength of Europe, a continent that was forced to learn the art of this kind of living. In Europe there has always been a Stranger nearby, within sight or within reach, both in a metaphorical and a literal sense. Our landscape is characterized by multilingualism, by the close proximity of the Stranger, but even more so by the fact that in our strictly limited space we treat the Stranger as an equal.

Europe could become something of a laboratory where a certain model of the art of living could be created and cultivated by people with various religious creeds, languages and traditions of happiness. A peaceful co-existence is possible not despite inequality but precisely because of diversity. It is diversity that is the basis of development, of the evolution of views and of new ideas. And it is an inspiration to problem solving.

One of the experiments we have been conducting in this laboratory is trying to find a way of crossing the boundaries delineated by much of the history of the modern institution of the nation state. The integration of society and the integration of diversity – i.e. the building of modern nations and states – these were two parallel, mutually dependent processes. Brandenburgers and Bavarians suddenly became part of the same nation, and the same thing happened to the Sabaudians and Bretons in France. It is hard to imagine what a breakthrough the transition from local to national community meant in the thinking of the peoples scattered over Europe.

Today we are facing another phase in the European adventure – a transition from the forms of integration we are familiar with from the workings of the European Union, to the creation of stable common ground for solving the problems of the planet, and the creation of mechanisms for global human solidarity.

Kafka the sociologist

We have a long way to go before we reach this goal. However, I believe that despite all the mistakes it has made and the difficulties democracy has experienced in many countries, the European Union is trying to find a way of creating a certain form of European citizenship – while respecting diversity, local and national autonomy, etc. In this respect, what is happening in Europe could turn out to be the great service that Europe could offer the whole world.

Obviously, when we look at Brussels or Strasbourg, we see no indication that anyone is thinking in terms of service. Two main tendencies are apparent in the European Union today.

The first one is the transition from a national to a transcontinental level. Today’’s European Union comprises 27 countries, and the number could soon reach 30. If we unite all our factories and companies, we might yet be able to compete effectively with the US, China or Brazil.

The second one is a tendency towards experimenting with various forms of cooperation, dialogue and of negotiating rights that could be useful on a global scale.

Franz Kafka, one of the greatest sociologists I have ever read, once wrote, albeit in a different context (what he had in mind was not Europe but the human condition and human activity in general): So if you don’’t find anything in the corridors, open the doors, and if you find nothing behind the doors, there are more floors and if you don’’t find anything there, don’’t worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don’’t stop climbing, the stairs won’’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards (The Advocates; translated by Tania and James Stern).

We have to keep climbing

To describe what had happened in the 17th and 18th century Europe, historian Reinhart Koselleck used the metaphor of a mountain pass that people were attempting to climb. None of those climbing towards the pass had any idea of what they would find on the other side; such folk could not have imagined present-day Europe because they lacked the words and concepts to describe the processes that had been set in motion.

What captivates me about this metaphor is not that on the other side we might find paradise on earth – we have no way of knowing that – but the fact that, as long as we keep climbing up a steep slope towards the pass, only one thing is certain: we cannot stop. We have to go forward, wading through the snow, because if we pitch our tents on that slope, they will be swept away by the first gust of wind.

I may be a visionary, or a born optimist – although my wife believes the opposite is true. Be that as it may, my hopes are based on the logic of development. Not so much from the Europeans’’ goodwill, as from the fact that there is simply no other solution because, given the current degree of mutual dependence of all peoples inhabiting this planet, its future depends on whether we will be able to cooperate with each other. It is a matter of life or death.

And given the current state of globalization, no country on its own, or even as part of a group of countries working together in only one part of the planet, will be able to defend human values and have the certainty that democracy and our preferred way of life are secure. And, looking back at the European adventure, we know that a global way of thinking has always been very strong in the European way of life.

As for conflicts… I wonder whether they are the result of the creation of nation states, and whether they can be equally severe when they occur within one nation; I am thinking for example of the conflict between the Ossies and the Wessies in Germany. We have more or less learned how to resolve this kind of conflict within nation states; now we need to learn how to resolve them on a higher level.

It is a question of a quantitative difference. Or, perhaps, a qualitative one too. That is quite certain. What might be on the other side of the mountain pass I have no idea. But I am certain of one thing: what we will see there will bear no resemblance to the institutions we have got used to identifying with the essence of democracy, peaceful co-existence etc, having forgotten that they have been our own choice albeit, until now, a very short-term one.

Admittedly, were Aristotle to be invited to the Bundestag or the Sejm, the proceedings would probably arouse his interest. He might even hurry home to write another volume of his Politics. But if he were to learn that this was democracy in action, he would be quite astonished because the democracy he had described does not bear any resemblance to what is taking place in the Bundestag or the Sejm.…

If not the EU, then what?

We have to learn to create equivalents to the institutions Europe managed to bring into being in the first phase of modern history, equivalents that will ensure people’’s representation, a representation of interests and peaceful means of conflict resolution. The fact that so many conflicts exist and that they happen on so many levels, is reassuring because it shows there isn’t one clear dividing line setting two different systems or blocs against each other. But there is a kind of pattern at work that allows a number of permutations, a crossover of alliances and antagonisms, and that has a mitigating effect, because in each conflict there is something that, from another point of view, unites the adversaries.

If I were told: let us forget the EU, let us find another way of resolving racial, national, cultural, historical, religious and other conflicts, I would be all ears, but just now I see no alternative.

Fragile visions

During the current phase of the modern era, one that I have called liquid modernity (the liquid metaphor works because liquids constantly change their shape), visions have become rather fragile. When I was a student and later, while reading Sartre, I came across visions of good society and of happy life, as well as some that were rather histrionic. They concerned a life-long project, and you had to decide right at the beginning who you wanted to be once you turned 80, as is my case now. That is over now.

As recently as 50 years ago philosopher Alfred Schütz complained that people often hide the motives behind their actions and instead of saying: I did it in order to…, they say: I did it because of…. Today we say: I did it in order to… but we say it in retrospect, injecting a goal that did not play the role of the driving force at the time of our action, because in fact our action was driven by the situation we were in at the time.

Technology is a key factor in our life today. It is a well-known fact that technology is developing because it is developing. When we act, we do not select the appropriate means for the given goal but rather think about what goal we could attach to the means at our disposal – these are our means, let’s think what they can help us achieve. This applies to politics, economy and increasingly also to the realm that sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to as life politics.

The continent is my oyster

The role of a driving force has been diminishing: due to the lack of an overarching vision, the absence of an idea for a radical solution to present-day problems that could be implemented until it has reached the end of the line, finished the race, achieved everything that is necessary. This lack of a driving force is obvious in the activities of the EU, but it is not only the EU that has found itself in this situation.

So where should the line be drawn between regionalization and unification of Europe? It will keep shifting intensely: moreover, it will be the right to draw the line that will be basically at stake in the power struggle to come in Europe between nation states, political elites, the old and the new member states.

What makes me think that it will – to use the currently fashionable word – be flexible? Well, it is the fact that the proverbial Polish plumbers have settled in France, England, Germany, and I met quite a few in Italy too, and that they represent another generation in Eastern Europe. People used to say: The world is my oyster. Now they are bound to say: Europe is my oyster. Meaning that they argue in European categories, comparing what happens in Spain to what happens in Greece, and choosing the better solution.

The differences that emerge in external political battles are the most important ones because nation states usually hold elections and political elites live from one election to another. However, the way of life of these people has started to change, they now argue in a different way. It is likely that when these citizens start electing governments I will no longer be among the living, and won’’t be able to check how it all panned out. But I believe that all this follows a certain logic of development which will have to be accepted sooner or later.

Negative globalization

People often stress that the only thing that really thrives in the EU is free trade, and that other aspects of the community cannot quite keep up. But this does not mean that the EU system is either brilliantly thought out, or erroneous. These days the same thing is happening all around the world.

I have been using the term negative globalization quite obsessively because what we have here is a globalization of all those forces that specialize in making porous the borders of all local institutions – a globalization of capital, finance, trade, information, terrorism, the drug trade and the mafia. However, this negative globalization is not matched by a positive one, that is to say, by a globalization of legal, political, and judicial institutions, which might be able to restrain the forces that have been unleashed and have spread around the globe. Here, again, we encounter the difficulty Europeans have been trying to resolve. I do not claim they have found the solution but I believe that they will have to look for one, whether they like it or not.

I agree with the political scientist Claus Offe that a division into optimists and pessimists leaves us both outside the box, that we don’’t fit. After all, what is an optimist? Someone who believes that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. And what is a pessimist? It’’s someone who suspects that the optimist might be right. The two of us believe that the world can be different from what it is, and that by becoming different, it might even become a little bit better.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This text appeared originally in the Polish-German journal Dialog, issue 83/2008, and the present, slightly adapted and abbreviated, version was published by Gazeta Swiateczna, the Saturday supplement of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 10 January 2009.