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Books and Culture

Bruce S. Thornton
Twilight of the Nation-State
European transnationalism is a utopian dream, Pierre Manent warns.
18 January 2008

Democracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, by Pierre Manent, translated by Paul Seaton (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 130 pp., $20)

The European Union’s grand project rests on the belief that nationalism is passé, indeed pernicious. Fascism’s mystic nationalism proved, on this view, that the nation-state impedes the spread of human rights, tolerance, and the rational adjudication of disputes—all essential to global peace. The nation-state should therefore give way to organizations like the E.U.: a transnational, secular institution that can bring about peace and prosperity by practicing what French intellectual Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics”—a rational approach superior to the atavistic passions and superstitions that fired nationalism. But as the political philosopher Pierre Manent argues in a provocative new book, the European project, at least in its current form, represents a serious threat to democratic freedom. “If our nation suddenly disappeared and its bonds were dispersed,” Manent observes, “each of us immediately would become a stranger, a monster, to himself.”

A professor at the Centre des Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron, Manent has written extensively on democracy, nationalism, and liberalism. Democracy Without Nations comprises an earlier essay of the same name; a long monograph, La raison des nations, that appeared in France in 2006; and a lecture, “What Is a Nation?” Together with translator Paul Seaton’s overview of Manent’s writings, they make an excellent introduction to the work of an important thinker, whose ideas help us understand the temptations of the E.U.’s utopian dream—and its dangers.

What troubles Manent is “the erosion—perhaps the dismantling—of the political form that for so many centuries has sheltered the endeavors of European man. I refer to the nation.” He begins by examining the present European scene, dominated by a “passion for resemblance,” which he describes as a demand that we see others as ourselves and ignore cultural differences, national ones above all. Europeans also increasingly regard their nations’ pasts as “made up of collective crimes and unjustifiable restraints.” With the past demonized and current differences ignored, legitimacy comes to reside only in a kind of “human generality.”

Yet modern democracy first arose through nation-states, Manent reminds us. These political forms united particular peoples into “communion,” binding past, present, and future. Now, though, “this unifying principle of our lives has lost its connective force,” the national communion dissolving into “predemocratic” associations lacking the democratic nation’s power to assimilate disparate groups and values. Asks Manent: “What human association, old or new, will be able to bring consent and communion together in a viable way?”

Abandoning democratic nationhood puts at risk the individual rights, equality, and freedom that the nation-state made possible in the first place. In its stead, Europeans now have a massive bureaucracy, insulated from citizen accountability—indeed, Kafkaesque in its impenetrability. Self-government gives way to a new enlightened despotism, the “sum of agencies, administrations, courts of justice, and commissions that lay down the law—or, better, rules—for us more and more meticulously.”

The consequences of this shift from sovereign state to transnational abstraction show up with particular clarity in the European opposition to the death penalty—a desire, Manent believes, to strip the state of what Max Weber called its “monopoly of legitimate violence.” The rejection of the death penalty reflects a belief that contemporary societies have left the Hobbesian state of nature behind. Yet the persistence of violent crime puts the lie to this assumption. In ending the death penalty, and “thereby protecting the murderer of the person it could not protect,” the state “severs itself from the original source of its legitimacy.” September 11 also undermined the European project in its current form, Manent believes, by exploding the myth of mankind’s inevitable elimination of differences and revealing instead “the mutual impenetrability of human communities.”

The E.U.’s hostile stance toward its Christian heritage also reveals its essentially abstract and utopian nature. “Politics and religion,” Manent writes, “always and necessarily overlap in some measure, since both are modes of ‘communion.’” Since the religious communion preceded and created the conditions for the “sacred community” of the nation, the attempt to excise all religious sentiment from the state, as the E.U. seeks, entails abandoning that older communion, again with troubling consequences: “Once the nation is abandoned as a sacred community, the lay state itself is laicized and becomes merely one of the innumerable instruments of governance,” such as those of the E.U. bureaucracy.

Manent considers in this light Europe’s troubles with its Muslim immigrants, as well as the position of the dwindling number of European Jews. Distrustful of differences—particularly religious ones, given the volatile Islamist presence—modern Europe prefers a vague “humanity,” divorced from any particular community. But as Manent observes in analyzing Europe’s dislike of Israel, “empty—hollow and vain—is any humanism that claims to detach itself wholly from all responsibility toward or for a particular people, or from any distinctive view of the human good.”

The refusal to acknowledge its Christian roots, Manent believes, has led Europe to “the verge of self-destruction.” To meet this threat, he urges Europe “to become fully aware of the original Christian character of our nations”—but not to abandon the secular state. “The neutral state,” he writes, “and the Christian nation go hand in hand.”

The American traditions of egalitarian individualism, distrust of centralized power, and the autonomy of local governments make it unlikely that we will allow some E.U.-like bureaucracy to swallow up our democracy. Yet too many Americans are willing to discard national autonomy for international courts and transnational institutions, run not by free citizens but by unaccountable technocrats. Pierre Manent’s work is a timely reminder of how much we stand to lose if we follow Europe down that road—as well as a heartening reminder that some of our cousins across the Atlantic share our concerns.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Books).

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