Limits to the Universal

Not many of us critically reflect on the conditions that make the universal possible. So it was with sadness that I read the BBC report “Abandon ‘utopian dreams’, says EU Head.”

Here is the causa cura:

The European Union should abandon its “utopian dreams” of ever-closer integration to combat rising Euroscepticism, Donald Tusk has said.

The president of the European Council said EU leaders should concentrate on practical measures such as reinforcing borders and a banking union.

What is disturbing about this perspective is that it displays a profound lack of appreciation for the causal relationship between economic integration and universality. Yes, dreams for integration can be — frequently are — utopian. That is to say, they are conceptualized absent place, no place, ou-topos.

To so conceptualize Europe is, on some level, perfectly understandable. When in the fourteenth century Europeans set about to shed their particular identities and to replace these identities with the abstract, universal identity of abstract time and abstract value — the birth of capitalism — they understandably mistook this new abstract identity for the universal towards which all human communities must necessarily be moving. When compared to Europe, other communities were limited — by tradition, religion, customs, superstitions, tyranny, despotism, and so on. Their limitations marked them as particular. Europe, by contrast, which had abandoned its traditions, religious forms, customs, and superstitions; which had submitted all of its legal, regulatory, social and cultural forms to the singular metric of abstract economic exchange, was therein mistakenly deemed “universal.”

And, yet, most Europeans failed to make the connection between their embrace of capitalism and their elimination of traditional social, political, cultural, and religious forms. They called this process over-simplistically “enlightenment” or “progress.” And they failed to make the essential connection between this process and the unprecedented extraction of wealth and labor upon which it was predicated.

To them, nevertheless, the recalcitrance of other communities was palpable. The failure of these communities to assimilate to the universal could only be credited to their “backwardness,” their lack of “development,” their “primitive” institutions and beliefs — in short, their particularity. From this perspective, colonialism and then imperialism can be viewed as playing out a necessary, system-required integration or unification of the entire globe into a comprehensive, rational, integrated, universal whole. Yet, we often conveniently overlook or downplay precisely what is involved in this systemically dictated universalization. It requires the — often quite violent and brutal — sacrifice of the particular for the sake of the universal. And no one knows this better than Europeans themselves.

From the moment that capitalism gained a beach-head at the workhouse of St Pierre in Ghent in 1324 it began to dissemble every last feature of European cultural, religious, economic, social, and political life, so much so that when Europeans looked back to the fourteenth century from the vantage-point of the eighteenth, absolutely nothing appeared the least familiar to them. In a matter of three and half centuries, capitalism had laid waste to an entire complex cultural form and had erected in its place a vast, integrated, comprehensive, rational legal, political, economic and social system. We need not review here the terrible violence of those centuries. At the time, particular communities were well aware what was happening to them. They recognized that everything they had once known — every single certainty — was being forcibly annihilated under the weight of economic necessity. The social, political, and economic, but specially the religious and cultural destruction could not possibly have been more costly.

Surely, therefore, if we imagine European integration will be non-violent and non-destructive, the EU President is not mistaken when he accuses us of “utopian beliefs.” He is right: it would be terribly naive to suppose that the displaced peoples of the southern and eastern Mediterranean or of south central Afroeurasia might simply slip into Europe without the least violence, devastation and destruction. For what is expected, hoped for, anticipated is the complete annihilation of their religious and cultural forms in a manner and to a degree not unlike the steady annihilation of European religious and cultural forms over the past five centuries; except that we are expecting and hoping for this destruction in a matter of years, months, weeks, or even days. We (who have grown so accustomed to such large-scale cultural violence) are inclined to view the complete elimination of whole cultural forms with an air of near total indifference. “Why all the fuss?”

But, the other side of Mr Tusk’s counsel displays how completely the EU President misunderstands the process he believes he is examining. It is precisely on account of the global integrating process — now already over five centuries old — that communities bordering on the Mediterranean and extending eastward through Afroeurasia are spilling over their arbitrary political borders into central and western Europe. Economic theory suggests that they will achieve equilibrium; and the costs borne by those seeking to slow or reverse this migration might as well be spent building a wall between Mexico and the US or between north and south America as on preventing human capital from seeking its optimum use. In these costs is only so much dead-weight loss; loss both on account of the underutilization of resources, but also on account of the prohibitive transactional costs (police, prisons, border guards) sunk to prevent global labor markets from achieving Pareto optimality.

Yes, there is some value in preserving and strengthening security in Europe. But of all people Mr Tusk (from Poland) ought to know how integration works. For centuries Europe has used southern and eastern Afroeurasia as a warehouse for cheap labor and raw materials. It is past time for Europe to restore the resources it pillaged and seized from these communities — not, as its practice has too often been, by propping up useful oligarchs and military dictators, but by investing massive resources in public institutions and processes.

Of course, in the wisdom of neoliberalism, such investments are deemed foolish because they do not reinforce civil society, i.e., the private market. Recall, however, that neoliberal theorists are worse than ignorant when it comes to the institutional and regulatory conditions that make for functioning private markets. Not one of these theorists evidently has even cracked a history book on the institutions or regulations of seventeenth or eighteenth century France, England, Germany or the United States. None evidently has given a moment’s reflection to the vast public institutional and regulatory framework — not to mention public frameworks for education, communication, currency regulation, banking, police, fire, courts — without which private markets simply do not function.

Evidently these theorists have forgotten that we invest in emerging markets precisely on account of the rent-seeking opportunities available in these markets, opportunities that undermine well-functioning legal and political institutions. Neoliberal theorists are therefore extremely unlikely to appreciate the costs that must necessarily be borne to bring these emerging markets into the global economy.

Rather than strengthening border controls and banking in the Euro-zone (both of which are surely necessary in the short run), Mr Tusk should be focusing Europe’s attention on how it can better open its borders in the long run. The violence and destruction to which Mr Tusk calls attention is what we should anticipate whenever whole cultural forms are called into question and eliminated. But since this destruction is itself evidence of a quite specific universalism — the universalism of capital — the response cannot be a reversion to European particularism. Rather must it be a thoughtful and careful investment in a different, less violent, and perhaps less destructive particular course toward integration.

Europe is not no place. It is some place. It is not ou-topos, not utopia. For were it no place, those who are not there would not seek to be there at great risk to their and their families’ personal safety and lives. Thinking critically about how to make this possible is necessary, but need not be utopian.

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