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.