The first truly European country

What does it really mean to be in a nation-state? I’m talking about, as it were, a political phenomenology, and I think it’s an intriguing question. Indeed, it’s the traveller’s question — where does the essence of a society lie? Is it unchanging or morphous? There’s a well-known elusive quality to the living human society of the nation-state, something very Heraclitan, as though the Egyptians who built the Pyramids and the Belgae who fought the Romans were somehow the ancestors of today’s Egyptians and Belgians, and yet somehow not: with each generation, they’ve stepped into the same river of time, event, and identity again and again, but because of that, it’s never the same river twice.

I think it’s very interesting to juxtapose the Egyptians to the Belgians because both societies are constituted of, on the one hand, very ancient geographical and demographic elements, and on the other hand, repeated and violent influxes of exotic blood — they are rich with relics of both stone and gene. And yet, the Egyptians have a much stronger sense of continuity, one that’s co-extensive with the borders of the current geopolitical place that history and the world have affixed as “Egypt”, whereas the Belgians have a profoundly weaker sense of of it for “Belgium”. Rather, Belgians’ continuities lie in their towns, in their families, and to some extent in the regional polities affixed as “Flanders”, “Brussels”, and “Wallonia” — that is, if they have any sense of continuity at all, which many of them self-avowedly don’t.

And then there’s the ongoing political crisis, which has left the federal central government hollowed out and in gradual decline, yet which hasn’t appeared to have harmed the three regional sub-governments all that much. Again and again I wonder: how is such a phenomenon enabled? It’s a subtle and tricky question, as most of my Belgian friends think I’m talking about what they always talk about, namely, how Belgium’s federal government “doesn’t matter” (wealth distribution and healthcare notwithstanding) and, moreover, how this might actually serve as a model or even paradigm for a future European federation or European nation-state. I’m actually not thinking about that; rather, I’m curious about the experiential and conceptual significance of the fact that there are three semi-sovereign governments here that are able to get by seemingly without the sovereign central government.

In other words, when I ask, How is Belgium possible? I’m actually really asking about the remarkable depth of Continental integration — and what this may really say about the future of the European Union.

In my last post, I remarked, apparently somewhat controversially, that Belgium is “a country that should not have been, an artificiality shambled together from the ashes of empires”. To be clear, this wasn’t a judgement, and moreover, insofar that all states are artificial, my remark should be read that Belgium is more artificial than most, at least in the West, as the majority of Western countries have been able, either by inheritance or active construction, to develop those continuities that so empower the Egyptian sense of geopolitical self. Indeed, Belgium’s robust artificiality is consciously experienced by her citizens, especially among the Flemish. So, what I was really trying to describe might be better captured if I coin a new phrase: Belgium was a never-state, that is, a nation-state that was unable to succeed in crafting a form of nationalism with real mass psychological glue.

Note that I speak in the past tense here. The reason is because most Belgians focus on Belgium’s never-ness but don’t stop to really explore the possibility that their polity has since evolved into something very Heraclitan, that is, consistent with its past yet profoundly and oddly different in its present. From one aspect of the political phenomenological point of view, that’s interesting, as it indicates something of the unconsciousness of history, but I digress. The key is this: the Belgians haven’t realized that their regional publics and sub-governments have evidently developed enough cultural, economic, and political ties to both the publics and the sovereign governments of the neighboring nation-states to render the actual central sovereign government somewhat irrelevant. Consider: if the Schengen and Euro zones did not exist, the current political crisis would likely be experienced much more dramatically. That tells us something about the extent to which Belgium as we know it right now is actually only possible because of Continental integration.

Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t any practical danger in the current situation. In fact, there are serious concerns of sovereign debt failure, and it’s likely that if the impasse between the regional parties persists, Belgium’s neighbors may have to intervene, thus ending the state of affairs I’m exploring here. That’s also not to say that the central sovereign government is indeed irrelevant — in fact, there’s a very active but very underestimated or overlooked caretaker administration that keeps the machinery of governance going, and its quiet effectiveness may actually be exaggerating the experience of the sub-polities’ autonomy from the larger polity. But with all that said, I nevertheless believe that we’re glimpsing something of, as it were, the deep present, and also a hint of the future. Ask yourself: what comes after the never-state? Ironically enough, it is a new kind of never-ness, a none-ness. Yes, that’s right, I’m saying that Belgium right now does not exist.

I don’t mean that ontologically — like the question of whether Belgium’s political crisis is practically tenable, whether polities have any metaphysical status separate from or underlying their empirical existence is a different, although deeply related subject, to which I’ll sort of return in a moment. Likewise, I should also note that polities’ empirical status is itself a slippery question, as polities are intangibles that nevertheless have a direct relationship with and impact upon the tangible world — again, something to which I’ll return.

I’m trying to focus strictly upon the tantalizing experience that Belgium continues to function because it has become truly and profoundly borderless. As Karl Jaspers might say, it has managed, if only for a brief socioeconomic and political moment, to transcend the subject-object divide that normally separates countries to become one with its neighbors. Insofar as “Europe” the concept, first formulated in the 1950s, of a unitary and post-diplomatic federation, can be conceived as precisely that Jasperian transcendence — one intended to end the savage wars of the old dichotomizing diplomatic era — then Belgium would therefore be the first truly European country.

Belgium’s non-existence, then, is a powerful phenomenon, some kind of conceptual void giving geopolitical substantiality, a fertile zero. However, it’s probably also an ephemeral phase. For one, because it’s unwitting, that is, it’s the result of an intractable and frequently short-sighted conflict between parties; for another, because if the goal is ultimately to create that dreamt-of Europe in a full-bodied sense, then Belgium’s non-existence is also insufficient: the facts are (a) the central sovereign government is still needed for wealth distribution and healthcare; (b) even if, albeit by part historical destiny and part historical accident, Belgium is ahead of her neighbors in her evolution, her neighbors are indeed not prepared to become non-existent themselves; and most of all, (c) it’s by no means certain whether non-existence, as I’ve described it here, is actually the path all of the Union’s member-states should take.

But what if non-existence is indeed that path? Here we move away from political phenomenology and enter into political ontology: whence arise polities, and toward what end are they heading?

I wonder whether we may be seeing other forms of non-existence across Europe, in Greece and Ireland for example. Luuk Van Middelaar, whom I met last week, would describe the Union’s attempts to hash out a way to resolve the fiscal crises in those countries as the contingency of Europe’s selving, that is, the becoming of Europe in practice, and I think he’s right, but he’s not asking what is quietly being shed as part of that process, and what are the new elusive continuities that may be being formed this very moment.

And the place where they are actually being formed is not unimportant, for the odd hylomorphic quality of polities, intangible ideological, cultural, economic, and organizational forms shaping raw geographical and demographical matter, seems to be very key. As the Bahai Faith teaches, and as the evidence of history may be indicating, polities are in a constant state of entropy and mutation, indeed, evolution, in one sense constantly striving to best embody a more perfect hylomorphis, in another sense already springing forth from that very union. They come from and go toward the horizon of humanity, that brilliant but blurred borderland between the rising and setting sun of interiority and the continents of exteriority.*

And so I think Europe is out there somewhere, and waiting for us on that horizon, in a twilight where borders cease to have meaning — a twilight that is ultimately within the human being, one which, if I’m correct, shall eventually dissolve Europe as well, merging her into an even larger Humanity, and then perhaps one distant day Humanity too, into Something Else, maybe even Something More, and yet still, from end to end, an elusive continuity.

[Note: the image attached to this post is a visual representation of my idea of "Belgian non-existence". Look closely: what do you not see?]

[*I added this paragraph a few hours after initial publication to better link the final thought with the rest of the reflection.]

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13 thoughts on “The first truly European country

  1. I see France taking over Belgium and the Netherlands ;-)

    To be quite honest, although the subject deeply interests me, I couldn’t make much of your blogpost. I think philosophy is very relevant – to, well, almost everything — but I have never seen much light come forth from this kind of philosophical commentaries on current events. Philosophy is relevant because it’s relevant to political theory and economics and culture, and those are relevant for the current state of affairs. But talking philosophically about current affairs without explicitly taking into account those other ‘layers’ of reality just doesn’t shed much light to me ;-)

    • Hi Michael, that’s a fair criticism, but if I may, then don’t you risk embracing, rather than resisting, the Kantian problem of theory versus practice, and thereby relinquish the ability of the philosopher to respond in time to events as they happen?

      Of course, we risk our credibility in doing so (look no further than my own faltered attempts to comment on the Arab revolutions), so I recognize that this isn’t a simple issue.

  2. Interesting hypothesis. Not truly familiar with European intricacy’s, I find your concept of a unified Europe interesting. I think their first step towards this unification was the introduction of the Euro. Having a common currency can accelerate a union of dissimilar identities, Such as was the case with the original thirteen Colonies of the “New World”. Their individualistic aspirations started to merge as one with the advent of that singular event. In addition, the centralization of government also helped to forge that identity.Yet you have put forth the antithesis of that idea with the non-effectiveness of their central government. Thus creating three individual states within one. This event creating what evidently some Belgians feel as a nothingness.

    I must admit I am having difficulty understanding this sentiment. Ultimately, I don’t believe the Utopian society that you put out their will happen. The border-less Europe has been attempted by military conquest over many millennium and failed. The borders today are a result of those endeavors. One interesting point you make are the failed economies of certain countries may contribute to this unification. I think they may be assimilated within a stronger neighbor, but ultimately, once “settled” an identity of culture will eventually try to leach out. As is evidenced by other city/nations within the Middle East.

    The human psyche is a fickle tool. One moment it wants true Utopia, the next Individualism. I would very much like to see a border-less world, this would in my opinion reduce most of the challenges that mankind faces today.

  3. It’s nice read some commentaries which are not afraid to enter the dark valley of metaphysical speculation ;) Anyway, for some reason your writing reminds of various dichotomies such as body-soul or thought-action; in other words, there is an Idea, which is supposedly “timeless and universal”, and then there are concrete manifestation(s) (Action?) of this Idea which are limited spatially and temporarily. One could approach politics as movement(s) (for example, representatives of political ideologies) towards an actualization of an Idea, and the plurality of movements reveals the conflictual nature of the political.

    Of course, the truly speculative and interesting question is this: If political Idea could be actualized perfectly, would that spell the end of politics?

    • Hi Urho, in all frankness, this is an awesome comment. So, I’m an Aristotelian about this, in a sense: the matter is forever in a state of catching up to the form, or more precisely, the hylomorphic union is always in a process of perfection. In less fancy terminology, that’s to say that due to entropy, politics shall never end; the real question is the quality it takes. :-)

      • Thanks for your response!

        It’s nice to see that classical thought has followers these days since I’ve been a bit worried about the growing gap between political philosophy and political science (for the sake of simplicity, we could say that the former is concerned with ideality of politics and the latter with the reality of politics). I was especially struck by the comment of Bertrand de Jouvenal who said that political ideologies function as both means and an end. About my question about the possible end of politics, I had in mind Nietzsche’s quip that liberal institutions cease to be liberal at that moment when they seize power.

  4. This is a rich post, with lots to think about. However, I must ask, is Belgium a more artificial nation than say, Great Britain, with its internal “colonies’ of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland?

    • Not necessarily, but as a united state it’s younger. 1830 for Belgium vs 1707 for England + Scotland. (Note that Ireland, however, was added as late as 1800).

  5. I am having some trouble reading this: “Belgium was a never-state, that is, a nation-state that was unable to succeed in crafting a form of nationalism with real mass psychological glue.” It seems you overlook the difference between nation and state and thus end up inventing a concept, never-state, that -I think- has no use. A nation is a cultural phenomenon, an amount of homogeneity in a large crowd, some sense of belonging together in shared values and so on… A state is just a political entity. Consider present Iraq, a state with different nations within its borders. It is a classic historical truth that nations sometimes become states and states sometimes become nations. Belgium is simply a state that never developed into a nation (like France for instance had been a state for centuries but only after the revolution could claim to be a nation, well Belgium hasn’t had enough time to go through a similar process). I don’t see what the concept of a never-state as a failed nation-state adds to the ordinary and simple concept of a state, that has no pretention of being a nation(-state) whatsoever. So in my opinion: let’s get Ockham’s razor…

    • Hi Rafael,

      Apologies for replying a bit late. Hmmmm unfortunately for me, I think you’ve got a damned good point. Nevertheless, in my defense — and odd as this may sound — I wasn’t trying to talk at a universal philosophical level but a subjectivist or phenomenological one: it’s not so much whether Belgium was a state that never developed into a nation but rather looking for the deeper significance in living in Belgium as it is, right now, in this crisis. On those terms, do you think I succeed or fail (or somewhere in between)?


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