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.]