In your book Post-Democracy you laid out your beliefs why the political order of Western countries is in decay. A few years later, with the rise of Mr Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, would you say that’s a logical consequence of your analysis from 2004 when the book was published?
My argument was that democratic politics was becoming a kind of game, managed by economic and political elites. The decline of class and religion had left many people without a strong sense of political identity, while globalisation was removing key decisions to international levels beyond the reach of democracy, which remained bound to the nation state. The recent rise of the far right across the world partly confirms my analysis, because these groups make a similar complaint about the powerlessness of ordinary people. But it has also taken me by surprise, as I had not realised that, while other historical bases of political identity were declining, national identity not only remained, but was being made more salient by globalisation, immigration, refugee crises and Islamic terrorism. These new movements are rooted in hate and seek an impossible return to national isolation, so they are both evil and useless. But I have to admit that they are a response to post-democracy.
One assumption while creating the European Union was to overcome the nation state by establishing a supra-national order on the one hand and on the other strengthening the regions/peculiarities of all parts of Europe. I would have guessed that regional identity, let’s say as a Catalonian or a Bavarian, is always stronger then the somewhat, in comparison, abstract and fabricated national narrative. Why isn’t that so in your opinion?
Over the centuries the rulers of various parts of Europe tried to get their populations to feel a primary loyalty to the territory that they ruled over. They wielded myths of ‘nation’ and the nation’s enemies in order to do this. Their success varied. The monarchs of the Scandinavian countries, England, much of France, Poland, and the territories that became the Netherlands, were particularly successful. But there were always exceptions, where more local identities survived: Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Bavaria, to some extent Wales and Brittany, many of the regions and cities of Italy. The whole business – both the creation of national identities and local resistances to them – was highly arbitrary. But the arbitrary can be very powerful if backed by powerful political forces and a lengthy history – even (or perhaps even especially) a mythical history. This is no place for rationality!
So national narratives are always based on mythical speculations, like Arthur’s kingdom of Albion or the realm of the Nibelungen? At least one can see right-wing movements playing with such motives that have been dug up again over time such as, in the German context, the Abendland, the Occident. Another example to me is the Anglo-Saxon narrative that bred in the belly of the Mayflower and flourished in America. It lives off the assumption that the English and later the Americans are a chosen kind, chosen people in the sense of biblical mythology.
Yes, there is always an important mythical component to national narratives, because they need an assumption of some kind of national separateness, which is nearly always an illusion, because particularly in Europe there have been so many movements and mixings of people. The nation cannot be defined simply by geography, as national boundaries have changed so much over the centuries – even the UK, which claims a special ‘island’ status, has a current national boundary no older than 1922. More can be done with language, though there are many exceptions to national language specificity, and linguistic unity is often a political imposition. When the Czechs and Slovaks wanted a Czechoslovakia independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they were concerned to stress the similarity of Czech and Slovak; today the separate Czech and Slovak nation states are busy differentiating their languages. Nations are political constructs. This does not mean that people do not believe in them – very fervently, often dangerously – but at times like the present, when national separateness is being used for cynical political ends, it is worth remembering this artificiality.
These narratives bear a certain claim to legitimacy of rulership. One point that critics of democracy in our days in fact also make is that politics, let us say the European Union for example, lacks exactly that legitimacy. Would the European Union, would liberal democracy in general, now not need to develop and articulate a narrative of its own?
Yes indeed!We desperately need a narrative that shows to people the need to develop solidarities with people in neighbouring countries, so that we can together confront challenges of globalisationClick To Tweet. In Europe we have much to draw on in a shared culture and history – even though the latter includes many wars and hostilities. But this needs support from political leaders, who need to be willing to say that we can confront today’s problems only by acting together across Europe. Instead, they have the often irresistible temptation to wrap themselves in their national flags and blame other countries for everything that goes wrong. As a British citizen I have witnessed this happening every day for years, leading my country to the stupid path on which it is now engaged. But it is also necessary that the European institutions make themselves relevant and attractive to citizens. Jacques Delors knew how to do this, but very few of his successors have even tried. Perhaps one good consequence of Brexit will be to teach them this lesson.
Is the freshly proclaimed general election in the UK now a triumph of democracy or a belated outcome of a flawed democratic referendum?
It is neither; it is just normal political manipulation. The prime minister, Theresa May – who up to two weeks ago had said she would definitely not call a sudden election – has noted two things. First, her personal lead in the opinion polls over the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has become very large. Second, the European Union has made it clear to her that there can be no negotiation of the UK’s new relationship with Europe until the ‘divorce’ settlement is complete. This means that, by the scheduled time for the next election – May 2020 – there would be only negative consequences from Brexit. She did not want to face the voters in such a situation. Her rhetoric around calling the sudden election has in fact been highly undemocratic, redolent of the Turkish President Recep Erdogan. She has said that after this election there must be an end to any discussion of Brexit in Parliament, and that during the election she should not be expected to discuss what she is trying to achieve in the negotiations. The newspaper that is most loyal to her, the Daily Mail, had just three words on its front page on the morning after the election was announced, mounted on a large picture of Mrs May: Crush the saboteurs. That is the political atmosphere in England today.
Do you expect a vote that could reverse Brexit?
No. The only thing that could stop Brexit is if, at the end of the negotiations, the government concluded that the implications were too negative to bear, and proposed to the public that it change its mind in a second referendum. Theresa May could do this, as she clearly wants to try to make Brexit a success. However, I think that this is unlikely. What lies behind the triumphal optimism of the Brexiteers is their belief that they can reconstruct the British Commonwealth (the old empire) as a trading zone based on the UK. I think that this is a delusion, but there is a deep strain of nostalgia for the Empire within the romantic wing of the Conservative Party, and it resonates with a section of the population, across classes. It will, I fear, need the full experience of a failed attempt to shake the confidence of this dream.
Interview by Alexander Görlach first published by Save Liberal Democracy