Has Western Europe Lost Its Soul?

(An earlier version of this paper was given at a Sinology conference in Beijing at the beginning of November, 2018)

Has Western Europe lost its soul?

Before beginning, let me set a more personal context. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia in the late 1950s, so my nationality (or ethnicity) is Dutch, although my citizenship is Australian. To add to these personal connections, my education is in European classical languages, biblical criticism and Western European (and Russian) Marxism. Thus, at many levels I am steeped in the European tradition.

Closed Borders and Closed Minds

Some years ago, a change began in Western Europe. In one country after another, the confidence of the 1990s began to dissipate. With the supposed ‘rolling back’ of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, many had thought the Western liberal tradition had triumphed. But just as it seemed to do so, it lost confidence. Whereas once such countries welcomed foreigners, now they became suspicious. Stricter controls began to appear on the borders, immigrants and refugees were increasingly seen as threats (to jobs, welfare, culture and so on). The targets are only peoples from the Middle East and North Africa – but also Russia, Eastern Europe and even southern Europe. Old denigrations took on a new currency, border checks became routine, more and more people were rejected.

With this gradual closing of the borders – about which much more can be said – came a closing of the mind. True, many Western Europeans have for long held a view of the world that places themselves at the culmination of history. But something has changed. Whereas in the past this attitude may have appeared as a distinct confidence, if not (colonial) arrogance, in more recent years it has evolved into a fearful view of the rest of the world as a threat.

Part of the reason – but only part – may be found in the profound geopolitical shifts that have become clear in the last decade or more. The North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 brought to the fore a process that had been underway for much longer (think of the Reform and Opening Up in China since the late 1970s). Not only did the shakiness of the ‘world order’ that had been established after the Second World War become apparent, but the financial crisis marked most clearly that the centre of global economic and political power was in a process of shifting. We can use the metaphor of a seismic shift, in which the continental plates shift, grinding away until a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions make clear what is already underway. Too late has the ‘West’ realised what is at stake. The frantic efforts – for example – by the United States to reassert its splintering hegemony comes far too late. The horse has already bolted, to use another metaphor. But this situation creates a profound sense of unsettlement in many people. Whether they liked the previous order or not, they had become somewhat comfortable. Not now.

‘Living Well’

All the same, these developments may be seen as external factors, however important they might be. Let me now turn to more internal features, of an individual and collective nature. To begin with, one notices a profound lack of purpose in many parts of Western Europe and North America. I think not so much of drive to make short-term profits at the expense of the long-term future, but of the purpose of life itself.

Let me give an example from the Netherlands, although it could be replicated again and again. The only remaining sense of life is to ‘live well’. You may ask: what is the problem with this? It all depends on what ‘living well’ means. It comes down to nothing more than eating at expensive restaurants, having a nice home, travelling to selected destinations, and if one is no longer able to ‘live well’, opting for euthanasia. Further, if anyone else in the world who is not able even to find enough food for a day wishes to share a little of this ‘well-lived’ life, then they are rejected and reviled.

Research Projects

Perhaps there is indeed an awareness of something amiss. Of late, an increasing number of research projects have begun to dig back into Western European history to identify what is unique about this culture. The history may not be as long as many other parts of the world, but signs of a search have begun.

For example, a very large project, funded by the European Council, examines the origins of the idea of ‘privacy’. This is a large team project based at a leading European university, with eye-watering funding and a somewhat new approach that turns on privacy as both a quality and a risk: too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society. While the project claims to be ‘international’, a careful look at its focus reveals that the term ‘international’ refers to countries in Western Europe, in terms of both its research scope and team.[1]

Clearly, the project sees privacy itself as a distinctly Western European discovery, although its agenda is to find a new way to trace the emergence of privacy. While the project risks a Euro-centric view, it also indicates that the very idea of privacy in this framework is specific and culturally determined. In other words, it is part of a European tradition that cannot simply be transposed and imposed elsewhere.

Further, the time period under investigation is telling: 1500-1800, precisely when capitalist market economies emerged in Western Europe, liberalism began its long road to dominance and this part of the world emerged from its backwardness to global colonialism. This is when Western Europe as we know it began to take shape not so long ago. With this focus, the project reveals a desire to re-anchor a relatively short cultural tradition that many sense has lost its way. What is it that makes Western Europe unique? Is it worth recovering and, if so, how?

In order to do so, a thorough reinvestigation of the role of religion in Western European culture lies at the core of the project. Tellingly, the project may be interdisciplinary to some extent, but it is based in a Faculty of Theology.

On this note, let me use another example. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of Western Marxists turned to the Bible and theology to find a new revolutionary model. Their names may be familiar to you: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton – to name only the most well-known – turned or returned to the Christian tradition to find new ways to speak about the revolutionary tradition. The specific contributions may differ in the details, but the underlying claim was the same: Christian theology, and especially the Bible, provides the origins of the idea and practice of revolution. In other words, this is a uniquely European discovery and needs to be reclaimed.

Rather than pass judgement on this effort (which is highly problematic), we need to ask why they did so. Here the date of 1989 and the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’ had a profound effect. We have not yet realized the full impact in Europe of this development, but one feature was the sense of crisis many Western Marxists felt. Although many had already given up on actual socialism further east, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to them to believe that all the old models were no longer workable. So they began to seek out a distinctly Western European model – based on theology.

Cultural Products

My final example concerns cultural products, such as films, novels and so on. More and more of these products attempt to recover what is distinct about the Western European tradition. For example, a recent German film – called Ich bin dann mal weg, translated as I’ll Be Off, Then – tells the story of a successful comedian who collapses on stage. Aware that something is missing in his unhealthy and pointless life – he drinks too much, smokes heavily and makes much money – he decides to set off on a pilgrimage.

His destination is Santiago de Compostela, a distance of some 800 kilometres. He follows one of the ancient routes – known in English as the Way of St James – to the cathedral in the city. Dating from the ninth century, the pilgrimage was popular in the Middle Ages, only to see a gradual decline with the onset of modernity. Tellingly, since the end of the 1980s it has once again grown in popularity (note again the importance of this period).

At first, the film’s character is not quite sure why he has undertaken the pilgrimage. He continues to smoke, pays for an expensive hotel, catches a taxi and then a bus in order to avoid walking. Gradually he comes to spend time with a couple of other pilgrims, who learn to help each other. Now he walks, stays in hostels, and begins to ask questions about the meaning of life, if not God. By the time they reach the cathedral in Spain, they have come to an awareness – partial though it might be – of what a full life might actually mean.

The examples could be multiplied (The Dutch film Tulipaner is another), but in many ways the film functions as a European allegory. The man in the film stands for a Europe that seems to have lost its way and is searching for a soul. That this search inevitably involves religion – especially in light of the complex intersections between religion and European culture – should not surprise us.

Conclusion

Let me examine the implications of this distinct loss of soul. To begin with, looking back can have many functions. Obviously, historical investigation is necessary and important for charting a path into the future. But it can too easily fall into a conservative search for the mythical lost Golden Age – politics in the United States is an excellent example. In the case of Western Europe, it is more about a sense that something has been lost. Whether what is lost is valuable or not is another question.

A significant part of this loss concerns religion, for the obvious reason that Western European culture cannot be imagined without religion – as the examples of research projects, cultural products and the work of some Western Marxists indicates. But here we face a paradox: on the one hand, the churches are virtually empty and few see religion as important in their lives; on the other hand, in the face of perceived threats the Christian nature of European culture has been increasingly asserted. I leave aside here the more intriguing suggestions for answering this problem (such as the sinification of religion), for the paradox itself witnesses to my main point.

What are the implications? These thoughts were originally part of a paper delivered at a Sinology conference in Beijing. To my surprise, the paper generated much discussion, for it obviously has implications for Sinology, let alone China in the world. Let me identify three implications.

The first is negative, with the small club of ‘Western’ nations closing their doors out of fear and rejecting the rest of the world, apart from sporadic efforts at neo-colonialism.

The second is more intriguing, for – as was very obvious to these participants – the developments I discussed witness to the distinct nature of the Western European tradition, which must be understood but cannot be transposed to other cultures without serious disruption.

Third, are their other models where a purpose is quite clear? The Chinese project, with Marxism at its core, is an obvious candidate. Observers from different backgrounds – from the Vatican through to a small but growing number of Western Marxists – have become aware that Chinese Marxism does provide a clear purpose and goal, if not a soul that has been lost elsewhere. This is not to say that Chinese Marxism should become a new global hegemony, and thus a false universal, but that it can perhaps provide a model for how one might shape such a soul in a new way.

[1] The project focuses on eleven case studies deemed important for the development of privacy: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dresden, Westminster, La Rochelle, Helmstedt, Chatsworth House, Versailles, Altona, Glasgow and Arc-et-Senans. Clearly, all are in Western Europe.

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6 thoughts on “Has Western Europe Lost Its Soul?

  1. I was never convinced Europe had a soul to lose. Trying to label varied cultures and ideals under one all-encompassing umbrella of ‘European’ never worked for me. I preferred to celebrate the differences, not merge them into one.
    But I really enjoyed your thoughtful article, Roland.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Hi Pete, much the same could be said about China, which has so many cultural traditions. I guess the presentation was focused on a Chinese audience, where they do – for better or worse – think of a ‘Western’ culture. Sometimes it helps, but sometimes it does not help perceptions. I often say that the USA should be included here, since it is such a weird country, like no other on earth. On that matter, some recent assessments in China have been noting the deep differences across the Atlantic

  2. A more pertinent question might be: is the proletariat of various european nations finding its soul (in contradistinction to the rotten, two-faced, feudal-bourgeois ‘soul’ of european Christianity & enlightenment)?

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