The core concept of my Utopias book is the relationship between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be. That relationship is always one of becoming, whether it’s a real process or it never gets out of our imaginations.
Thinking about Robert Kagan’s essay last week, I realized that it made a very stark contrast with my own stance (and Etienne Balibar’s, and Antonio Negri’s, and many others) on what politics and activism is for.
Done well, or done badly, an activist for any cause is trying to change the world. I think a proper utopia will be centred around a particular range of values. I’m not about to grant that a radical white supremacist is a utopian in the sense I’m exploring, for example. That ideology is fundamentally cruel and destructive – it frees no one.
|From an anniversary ceremony marking the 70th year|
of the United Nations' existence. This was another
institution whose fundamental philosophical goal was
forging a new, more peaceful, self-conception for
humanity. The ceremony was held in San Francisco,
an important site, given its status as the capitol of a
fictional Federation with a similar nature.
So in that sense, Utopias explores how we figure out how to free the world.
Contrast Kagan and Balibar now. Balibar – even though he’s radical in many ways – ultimately keeps his faith in the European Union, for example.* It’s a space that allows us to create a new concept of power, a new social identity.
* Faith in the European Union was much easier to hold in 2003, when Balibar was compiling this book of his essays, We, the People of Europe?.
The EU’s core goal was to move European people away from defining themselves as members of a nation. Do you understand how radical and crazy that idea is? European politics and institutions literally invented the modern concept of nation. They exported this idea as the organizing principle of our entire international institutional and legal structure.
The concept of the nation even pervades the basic language of politics. Down to the word ‘international.’ A little exaggerated, but this is a truth. It’s the United Nations, after all – not the United Cultures, United Lands, United Societies, United Humanity, or even United Peoples.
That’s how radical it is to build a massive bureaucratic institution whose long-term cultural goal is pressing European societies to stop thinking of themselves as nations.
Pursuing that kind of change is an enormous risk. You’re developing whole new political and legal institutions that have never really been tried before. The comprehensiveness and physical scale of European Union institutions and reach had no precedent in human history.
Something that risky is always in danger of collapsing for some unforeseen reason or some terrible crisis. I feel like the European Union had become such a huge and powerful economic force that, popularly, we didn’t really believe it could fail. But it’s only a few decades old, and the Brexit vote just happened a few months ago.
It may take several tries to get an institution like the EU to work. And from a perspective like Robert Kagan’s, it’s ridiculous to try.
|Geert Wilders, one of the most ridiculous-looking|
examples of the sneering face of European nationalism's
last primal horrifying scream. I like to mock them as
much as I can, to remind me that Nazis are human.
Kagan made a fundamental challenge to the viability of the European Union and the standard European approach to global politics as institutional and legal. Europeans can only pursue their experiments in international institutions and build their foreign policy around international law, because they were weak. Most importantly, they were weak and had a protector.
Kagan saw a world where, in international relations, states and militaries were the ultimate power. Your city may be a global economic hub, but it won’t be for much longer after our army pounds it to rubble and kills millions of your people.
Accepting that brutality makes the foreign policy school of realism deserve its name. It’s a political philosophy that’s literally throwing up your hands and damning the world to hell. It accepts that there is nothing anyone can do to make the world more peaceful or just.
If you want to build peaceful institutions in your own corner of the world, you need an ally with a massive army to protect you from the other massive armies that will inevitably destroy you. And at least temporarily, that may be necessary.
Because the experiments don’t always work. If anything has broken the EU, for example, it’s that the migrant crisis came too soon. Europe was in the middle of dealing with a reactionary nationalist insurrection – the last screams of the old national order. Leaders like Jorg Haider, Pim Fortuyn, Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orban, Geert Wilders, and Beata Szydlo.
Too many people still believed in the nation to forget about defending its ethnic and territorial integrity from a wave of suffering people.
Maybe if European society had managed to weather one more generation without disruption, they’d have helped enough people think without nationhood.
Experiments are fragile, and they need to be protected. The most valuable experiments are the ones that are hardest to protect, political experiments. But if the experiment is successful, they won’t need protection anymore. No one would.