Three Monkeys Online

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Crimea and the kenosis of the European soul

This infantilization on the interpersonal level aggregates to have a bearing on Europe’s geostrategic potency insofar as it hollows out any demand for political accountability when Europe’s political leadership starts spouting its habitual pseudo-humanitarian hubris.

The deterioration of academic standards throughout the western world is not lost on people like Kolya, himself a master’s graduate in economics. He says “The proposed association agreement with the EU was a terrible idea for Ukraine. So we get to export all of the low added-value stuff – coal, grain, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and we import your finished goods, making us just an economic colony. Except there’s one very high added-value item which we’d be exporting to the rest of the EU – skilled young people. Our graduates have first-rate financial and reporting-skills. They’re trained to write razor-sharp macro-economic analysis in their second language. How many new business-graduates in Europe can do that these days? If we join the customs union with Russia, then maybe we won’t have the same potential market or level of prosperity, but at least we won’t have to worry about our young people getting the shit end of the stick, being paid less than western European graduates, in spite of having better skills.” It’s not unusual for people to believe that their own national educational systems are the best, but we can forgive Kolya for this supposition – it wouldn’t take much to intellectually out-compete the average European business graduate.

Infantilization has more disturbing manifestations than merely a deterioration in academic, and more broadly, intellectual, standards. On the one hand, liberalism insists on the sanctity of human life and individual freedom, owing to its (some would argue, purely formal) universal recognition of all human beings as “persons.” On the other hand, this has arguably enabled the development of a culture in which concrete recognition of the subjectivity of others (empathy) disappears entirely. One of the more bizarre aspects of recent cultural change in the west is the level of discreet violence and emotional violence which has come to be regarded as normal. While our formal recognition of each other as “persons, possessed of inherent dignity” is legally enshrined, we seem to have developed a collectively obsessional penchant for annihilating each other as “persons” in ways which, by their nature, are neither statistically measureable nor legally codifiable. Liberalism’s (excluding neo-liberalism) principal systemic strength may very well be that its modes of violence are simply not statistically measureable. The extent to which emotional violence and passive-aggression have become both normalized and simultaneously fetishized in western post-industrial societies is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the “vast wars of the spirit” which Nietzsche envisaged. Nietzsche’s enduring point is that our conventional European conception of what it means to be “a person” is dying. With reference to Kolya’s remarks about being “under the kosh,” Ukrainians have never really known social justice, but maybe that is the main reason why there is more social glue here.

A capacity for empathy is dependent on a certain level of reflexive self-awareness. In order to be able to identify the “Thou,” we must first be able to identify the “I.” In all pathologically narcissistic and sociopathic personality-types, atrophied ego-formation is a common factor. Self-positing is also implicitly essential if a person is to develop semi-reliable analytical skills – analysis is, by its very nature, a dialectical process involving continuous self-positing (and therefore self-negation) – in the act of analysis, I am required at each moment to distinguish between the perspective which I held a short time ago, the perspective which I hold at this moment, and the perspective which I might come to hold if the analysis continues – I am required to distinguish between “a subjective point of view” and “an (attemptedly) objective point of view” (which is never definitively realizable), to implicitly treat myself at every step of the process as one of the objects of enquiry. As Hegel (and before him, Hölderlin) had put it, the distinction between subject and object is in itself a judgemental distinction which is necessary for us to project onto our experience before consciousness may engage with an object at all.

Seen through these coordinates, hackneyed complaints about people being spoiled and academic standards falling are inadequate insofar as they fail to employ the language of social pathology which Nietzsche developed. Hegel once famously observed that “it was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated.” By “emancipation,” he meant reflexive self-awareness – human beings had attained freedom, had brought themselves into existence as human beings, only by virtue of being forced to endure and resist being annihilated by history’s darkest episodes. The “I” cannot self-posit unless its borders with the rest of the world come into focus, and so self-awareness had necessarily developed under conditions of alienation and resistance. On the one hand, liberalism is dependent on a rank-and-file citizenry of reflexively self-aware individuals (capable of self-positing, therefore capable of self-observation and “self-legislation”). On the other hand, liberalism seeks to eradicate pain and alienation (especially during upbringing), which are necessary rites of passage before such an individual can develop.

This infantilization on the interpersonal level aggregates to have a bearing on Europe’s geostrategic potency insofar as it hollows out any demand for political accountability when Europe’s political leadership starts spouting its habitual pseudo-humanitarian hubris. The first time that I can remember anybody floating the idea of a common defence-arrangement between EU member-states was following the outbreak of the Algerian civil war in 1991. In line with Europe’s glowing image of itself, such a force was primarily conceived as one which could intervene in humanitarian crises on the EU’s periphery. Nothing happened. Then the Bosnian genocide got going. Once again, Europe projected total impotence. Ditto with regard to the Kosovo conflict.

When things started getting ugly in Ukraine recently, Victoria Nuland’s remark to Geoffrey Pyatt seemed, quite frankly, fair. Europe’s view of itself as the world’s human rights standard-bearer is hilarious when one considers that all Europe ever does in the face of humanitarian crises is to send a special representative, and that the EU doesn’t even meaningfully censure member-states who have shown blatant disregard for any reasonable standard of human-rights or civil-rights compliance (most particularly in post-communist central Europe). This is where my friend Kolya’s “incubator” charge sticks – having been raised and socialized in a climate of such hyper-security, are we really so obtuse as to believe that the world’s genocide-mongers care a single iota about what an EU special representative might have to say? I remember thinking during the Bosnian genocide that, if EU policy could be as obtuse as it was in relation to a humanitarian crisis of that scale and within that proximity to the EU’s borders, then our whole way of life was on borrowed time.

And this seems to be bearing itself out – with every economic, political or humanitarian crisis which the EU faces, either within its borders or beyond, there’s a total vacuum of leadership. We are like Nietzsche’s “ultimate men” – no matter what happens, we just blink. Debt-contagion – blink. Winter Olympics – blink. Genocide – we send a special representative to do our blinking for us.

With regard to Ukraine’s political crisis, one thing which is striking is that, even though the American agenda and that of the Russians are obviously at odds, they seem to mutually hold the EU in contempt. It’s worth bearing in mind that the event which ostensibly kick-started the crisis was the Ukrainian government’s refusal to agree to the terms of the association agreement with the EU – European diplomats had not had the tradecraft to avoid being embarrassingly mugged by their Russian counterparts. Western Europe is mired in public debt, with soaring unemployment, literacy-rates in freefall, no capacity to meaningfully intervene in humanitarian crises on its periphery, and no meaningful level of diplomatic influence in any of the world’s key geo-strategic pivots – central Asia, Transcaucasia, and Ukraine. Furthermore, the EU makes no meaningful attempt to even monitor compliance with human and civil rights-norms within its own recently enlarged borders. It is as though a parody of the cultural complex which Nietzsche referred to as “passive nihilism” has become our official federalist quasi-religion. We are a leaderless vacuum (kenosis, indeed) with a hypocritical self-image and no geostrategic policy. But perhaps we still need a myth-image of ourselves, and cling to it just as desperately as we cling to a hilariously outdated sense of our cultural prestige.

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4 Responses to “Crimea and the kenosis of the European soul”

  1. Tomas says:

    “all Europe ever does in the face of humanitarian crises is to send a special representative”
    – Sorry, but I find this a bit harsh. I’m not some kind of EU-fanatic, but it took me just a few click to find this: And I believe more of this is done on a country level, for example like this: I wonder what would Kolya think about this.

    Secondly, the idea about highly qualified Ukrainians is OK, but you might also consider that thousands of Ukrainians do unqualified jobs within EU. (I have nothing against work migration, just let’s not pretend that every Ukrainian has MA.) Incidentally, you maybe know that PISA results are quite stable in case of e.g. Spain:
    – I understand the knowledge/literacy may be getting worse in some aspects/countries (and I presume not only within EU), but freefall?

    But most importantly, I would like to hear from you not only what does EU wrong, but what would you expect it to be/do, or which country could serve as a positive role model?

    • Padraig McGrath says:

      The EU tolerates the Orbanization of Hungary, and the full range of manifestations ofretrograde racism and xenophobia throughout post-communist central Europe. We have decided to normalize these things by incorporating them into our economic/political union. So I stand over my point that the EU has a hypocritical self-image when it comes to human rights
      and civil rights norms. As an interviewee quoted in a previous article which I wrote on the Ukrainian situation said, “European enlargement was just about business – it had nothing to do with civic values.”

      Regarding your point on literacy…. Firstly, having spent a decade working in the educational sector, I’m hugely sceptical about most pedagogical methodologies and standardized testing-methodologies. I firmly believe that, for the most part, these things are merely euphemisms for programmatic infantilization. Furthermore, I was not zeroing in on literacy-rates in Spain
      specifically – my point in citing the France 24 feature was that, if it is now considered normal for journalists in Europe to infantilize a trans-continental TV audience in the manner described, then it it’s hardly surprising that several regions of the EU have become unemployment black-spots. Once we start explaining painfully obvious stuff to the ordinary citizen as in the instance described, it’s natural to expect that nation-states who do not infantilize
      their citizenry to the same extent will begin to out-compete us. In addition, I’m highly sceptical on the trans-generational consistency with which the criteria for testing different types of cognitive ability are applied. And certain aspects of literacy are not testable – for example, I would say that the ability to recognise a text as allegorical was certainly an aspect of a broader “literacy.” But the rise of both Christian fundamentalism and the new atheism (both
      equally naïve, both equally guilty of literalism, both equally lacking in nuance) is highly indicative that this aspect of literacy is in freefall.

      As to your question about what can be done…. Well, I believe that the Hegel-Nietzsche coordinates around which I built my argument commit me to the following answer: nothing can be done. The economic, political, moral and intellectual problems which the EU faces are inevitable manifestations of our collective psychological (or, more precisely, phenomenological) meltdown. The
      hollowing-out of European self-consciousness, resulting in the level of geostrategic ineptitude which the EU has shown over the past 20 years, is our shared psychological trajectory. That’s why I moved.

      • Tomas says:

        I made my comment about humanitarian crises in a specific (quoted) context. “Hungarian case” is no proof about how EU allegedly never provides any humanitarian aid. These are two different topics (and you yourself distinguished between them in the article). If you want to support your statement about how the only thing EU does in case of humanitarian crises is sending a representative, please use something more relevant.

        Secondly, I would like to hear about one country in the world that has no issues with racism or xenophobia. I feel this is not a EU/Europe-specific problem, but rather a problem of humanity. USA, which you mention in the article, could be labelled as hypocritical in some aspects just as well (not only in relation to racism). If your point was that EU is going down the dumper, OK. But if you meant to share some message behind, please can you elaborate on what is your benchmark/positive model? Thanks.

        (By the way, I’m not sure why are you concerned specifically about central Europe – I believe you are well aware about violent racial outbursts in France and the UK during the past decade; I don’t think – but I may be wrong – something like that happened on such a scale in CE. NB I don’t mean that as an excuse to racial violence etc. at any level anywhere.)

        • Padraig McGrath says:

          Okay, so you’re holding me to the letter when I say that “all the EU ever does is to send a special representative….” Well, in that case, let me concede this point – I do not deny that the EU sends humanitarian aid, but humanitarian aid is, in itself an aspect of Europe’s track-record of moral cowardice. Humanitarian aid is, essentially just a band-aid – it’s a poor substitute for meaningful intervention. I’m every bit as critical of the appalling misadventures of United States foreign policy as most other people, but at least the US meaningfully intervened in Kosovo. So if you’re looking for a historical example which can be positively compared to European passivity in the face of large-scale humanitarian crises, then that’s the one I’m offering.

          Secondly, while you quite correctly observe that every country in the world has problems with racism and xenophobia, my contention is that, in the EU, our liberal hubris essentially exacerbates these problems – liberal rhetoric now primarily serves the purpose of sweeping this stuff under the carpet. By comparison, Russians tend to be suspicious of outsiders at first (hardly surprising, considering how most westerners have been culturally trained to see Russians as uncivilized alcoholic rabble – another manifestation of our self-congratulatory attitude on civic values), but those suspicions usually get broken down quickly on the interpersonal level. Russians tend to be quite open-hearted people.

          In contradistinction to this, the kind of pathological racism which festers within the liberal private sphere of western post-industrial societies is much more difficult to break down insofar as it manifests itself primarily on the interpersonal level. Its consequences are no less damaging than the social effects of legislatively enshrined racism, but the liberal private sphere ultimately now serves as an incubator for it. For Russians, racism is an attitude which is rooted in a sense of cultural prestige and a sense of themselves as a great civilization, but it doesn’t prevent most Russians having trusting relationships with members of other ethnic groups. By comparison, inter-ethnic trust in Hungary and the Czech Republic is practically unknown – for Czechs and Hungarians (for example), racism is pathologically hardwired into the process of ego-formation itself, making it completely impervious to reasoned argumentation, re-education, social engineering or editing. The Czech Republic is the mother of all “emperor’s new clothes” liberal democracies.

          Finally, yes, I’m well aware of the flashpoints of racism which have manifested in countries like France and Britain over the past decade. But at least in countries like France and Britain, a meaningful social debate and critique/analysis of racism is possible. This kind of deep analysis and critique is hardly possible in societies where the tradition of education and upbringing is so programmatically infantilizing as to prevent most people from developing the basic levels of self-awareness which might enable them to critically examine their attitudes and the implicature of their attitudes. So the result is that while, in France and Britain, racial tensions sometimes openly manifest themselves in rioting (at least provoking a public debate), in much of post-communist central Europe, racism festers unexamined, incubated by a particularly glib adherence to the rhetorical norms of liberalism. Russia is certainly not a democracy, and most Russians are openly anti-liberal, but nobody could ever plausibly maintain that Russia has no public sphere – Russians never stop having major arguments about history, politics, identity, etc…. By comparison, the banalization of Czech and Hungarian public culture enabled by post-communist consumerism and the resultant total absence of a meaningful public sphere in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic make pathological racism all the more socially corrosive.

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